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National Farm to School Network

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Small steps for using the USDA Farm to School Census

NFSN Staff Thursday, October 13, 2016
By Matthew Benson, USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Community Food Systems


Photo Courtesy: USDA Food and Nutrition Service
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released final results from the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census, showing that more than 42,000 schools across the country are operating farm to school programs and another 10,000 have plans to start in the future. During the 2013-2014 school year, these schools purchased nearly $800 million worth of local products from farmers, ranchers, fishermen and other food producers – a 105 percent increase from the 2011-2012 school year – and tended to more than 7,101 school gardens

The Farm to School Census establishes a national baseline of farm to school activities happening across the country. Whether you’re interested in learning about the national landscape, what’s happening in your state or how your school district participates in farm to school, there are many ways that this information can be used to support your farm to school efforts. Here are three small steps you can take for using Census data to strengthen farm to school activities in your community:

1. Use Farm to School Census data when sharing your story
The Farm to School Census contains data about farm to school activities at the local, state and national levels. Using this data – such as the number of kids impacted by farm to school programs or the dollars spent on local food by schools – can help decision makers understand the benefits farm to school programs have for kids, farmers and communities. Combining validated USDA numbers with your personal experiences and stories can be a powerful tool for raising awareness and spreading your message. 

2. Use Farm to School Census data to guide training and technical assistance efforts
The Census includes information on schools that report wanting to start farm to school activities, as well as challenges school report facing when it comes to buying local foods. It also shows which local foods schools are currently purchasing and which they would like to purchase in the future. Knowing this information allows support service providers to help schools get involved in farm to school and assist their expansion of farm to school efforts. Use the Farm to School Census data explorer to download information on the kinds of training and technical assistance schools in your area need most. 

3. Use Farm to School Census data to measure progress
Track the progress of farm to school activities in your district or state by downloading raw data from both the 2013 and 2015 Farm to School Census. This raw data provides information to track farm to school participation, dollars spent on local foods, and the number of school gardens throughout each state. Comparisons can be made locally, statewide or nationally. Some states, such as Oregon, have begun to use Census data to create statewide goals and action plans. Regional groups, such as Farm to Institution New England (FINE), are also using Census data to measure progress across multiple states.

Find out more ideas for using Census data by watching a recording of the 2015 Farm to School Census webinar, co-hosted by USDA and the National Farm to School Network in August.  

USDA is pleased to celebrate October as National Farm to School Month. All month long we’re working alongside the National Farm to School Network to encourage our partners to take one small step to get informed, get involved, and take action to advance farm to school in their own communities and across the country. Digging into the Census data is one small, easy step you can take today! Happy National Farm to School Month! Check out this new video highlighting Census results and sign-up to receive updates from FNS’s Office of Community Food Systems.

In addition to these three ideas, the National Farm to School Network uses Farm to School Census data to help advocate for policy change. Lawmakers are influenced by research and data, and the Farm to School Census is a great resource for helping legislators understand the positive impacts farm to school programs have on children, families, food producers and communities.

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