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National Farm to School Network

News

Kids counting on us: Give healthier school meals a chance

NFSN Staff Wednesday, December 12, 2018
By National Farm to School Network Staff

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a final rule that will relax nutrition standards for meals under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP) and other federal child nutrition programs that were implemented in 2012. The rule will: 

  • Change whole grain requirements so that half of the total weekly grains served in menus be whole grain-rich. Previously, all breads, cereals and pastas had to be at least 50% whole grain. Now, a school could serve foods that are not whole grain-rich, as long as at least 50% of the total weekly menu complies. 
  • Lengthen the amount of time for sodium reduction in meals, requiring Target 2 be met by School Year 2024-2015, and eliminate the Final Target. Previously, the rule was designed to meet the Final Target and cut sodium levels in half by 2022. 
  • Allow more flavored milk options - like chocolate and strawberry 1% - to be served. Previously, flavoring was only permitted in fat-free milks. 
While the final rule does not come as a surprise, it is disappointing. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required USDA to update nutrition standards for the first time in three decades, and the healthier standards went into effect School Year 2012-2013. In 2014, USDA reported that 90 percent of schools were successfully meeting these updated nutrition standards. 

Beyond successful implementation, we know that the healthier standards can and are working to get students eating more fruits and vegetables, maintaining NSLP participation, and not increasing plate waste. But these positive impacts have taken time to come to fruition. 

At the National Farm to School Network, we know implementing healthier nutrition standards is like teaching kids how to ride a bicycle. We don’t prop them up on the seat, plant their feet on the pedals, and expect them to be able to ride on two wheels at their first go. Often times, we give them an extra set of wheels - training wheels - to teach them how to balance, feel comfortable, and catch a first thrill of self-propelled forward motion. We expect it will take a few tries before the training wheels come off, and a few tumbles before new riders are really cruising. 

Developing healthy eating habits goes much the same way. We shouldn’t expect kids to always like the taste of a new vegetable, or love whole grain pizza crust at first bite after being accustomed to white flour. That’s where farm to school makes its biggest impact. Activities like taste tests, school gardens, farm visits, and cooking demonstrations help students get excited about trying and liking new, healthier foods. This is something we hear over and over and over again, and it’s what the research tells us. Simply put, farm to school activities are the training wheels that make healthier nutrition standards stick with students

Giving kids repeated opportunities to learn about their food — by gardening, meeting farmers, cooking — and opportunities to try new foods — with Harvest of the Month, salad bars, and new menu item samples — add up to more receptiveness and enthusiasm for healthier school meals. Farm to school doesn’t guarantee that kids will like everything served to them, but it does aim to give kids every opportunity to build healthy habits that will last them a lifetime.  

Once you learn how to ride a bike, backwards is not a direction you want to move in. As our kids continue to grow accustomed to the healthier nutrition standards, now is not the time to go backwards. We owe it to our nation’s children, and they’re counting on us. With more than 30 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, it’s crucial that we continue to give them strong opportunities for a bright and healthy future. 

Policy Review: Farm to School and the 2018 Farm Bill

NFSN Staff Wednesday, August 08, 2018
In the first half of 2018, the National Farm to School Network, as the leading policy voice for farm to school, advocated to advance three important federal farm to school priorities:   
  • Adopting the Farm to School Act of 2017 to increase mandatory funding.  The Act expand access for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program to fully incorporate 1) beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, 2) early care and education sites, summer food service program sites, and after school programs, and 3) native and tribal schools.
  • Amending the Geographic Preference provision in the existing farm bill to allow the use of “location” as a product specification when procuring school food. Current law does not allow schools to explicitly require “local” or “regional” as a product specification in a food procurement request. 
  • Continuing and expanding to more states the Pilot Project for Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables and allow participating states more flexibility in procuring fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. 
Given the benefits farm to school has on farming communities and economies, NFSN looked to the farm bill as the best legislative vehicle this year for moving these priorities forward. In fact, two of the priorities - geographic preference and the pilot program - had been taken up in previous farm bills. 

Over the the past year, NFSN and its partners worked tirelessly to recruit cosponsors for the Farm to School Act of 2017, and also highlight the other two priorities aforementioned. Many of our Core and Supporting Partners helped NFSN make connections with their respective federal “decision makers” and their staff. Through these efforts, we were successful in gaining 13 bipartisan House cosponsors and 13 bipartisan Senate cosponsors, and we educated many more policymakers on the benefits and opportunities of farm to school in their respective districts and states. 

Although the House bill did not include farm to school priorities, NFSN recognized opportunities remained with the Senate. The Senate Agriculture Committee version of the farm bill also did not include any of NFSN’s three farm to school priorities when it passed out of committee. However, the farm to school message was received on Capitol Hill when two of these priorities were filed as amendments to be considered by the full Senate in its final vote on the bill: 

Amendment #3179 - Geographic Preference Provision
Co-Sponsored by Senator Brown (D-OH), Senator Collins (R-ME), Senator Tillis (R-NC) & Senator Hassan (D-NH)

Amendment #3129 - Pilot Project for Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables
Sponsored by Senator Wyden (D-OR)

The inclusion of these two priorities as amendments was a major step forward for farm to school being part of the federal policy making dialogue, and it was a direct result of tireless advocacy efforts from farm to school champions across the country. There were over 150 amendments scheduled to be considered by the full Senate, however, ultimately, Senate leadership only allowed a handful to be voted on before closing the amendment process. This meant that many amendments, including these two farm to school amendments, were not voted on and thus not included in the final version on the Senate farm bill, which passed with a 86-11 vote.  

Despite not crossing the farm bill finish line, there are reasons to be proud of our farm bill advocacy efforts: 

  • NFSN and the farm to school movement gained new, bipartisan Congressional champions for farm to school - most notably the amendment champions listed above.
  • Together, we increased exposure to farm to school with Senators on both sides of the aisle, thanks to advocates calling, emailing, and using social media to contact  your representatives, asking for their support of farm to school in the farm bill.
  • NFSN forged new coalitions with national organizations, such as the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
As the farm bill process concludes, we now turn our attention towards other federal legislative opportunities to advance farm to school. While the National Farm to School Network continues advocacy at the federal level, it’s important to remember that federal policy is just one policy approach to advancing farm to school. State farm to school policy can be equally - if not more - important in fostering and growing farm to school programs in your communities. Our State Farm to School Legislative Survey: 2002-2017 shows that state and territory legislatures are proposing farm to school policies in record numbers. So even as things slow down on the federal level, there are still ample opportunities to keep up our advocacy work in state, local, and school policies. Don’t forget the significant of your voice in helping creating change at every level of government! 

To learn more about the National Farm to School Network’s policy advocacy and to find resources to help you shape farm to school policy in your community, visit our policy webpage

Action Alert: Two Opportunities for Farm to School in the Farm Bill

NFSN Staff Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The 2018 farm bill is back in action today. As the bill moves forward, we are thrilled to see that TWO of our farm to school priorities will be introduced as amendments to this legislation, and could be included in the final version of the Senate’s farm bill. 

Senator Brown (D-OH), Senator Collins (R-ME), Senator Tillis (R-NC) & Senator Hassan (D-NH) Amendment #3179
Amends the Geographic Preference provision in the existing farm bill to allow the use of “location” as a product specification when procuring school food. Current law does not allow schools to explicitly require “local” or “regional” as a product specification in a food procurement request. 

Senator Wyden (D-OR) Amendment #3129
Continues and expands to more states the Pilot Project for Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables and allows participating states more flexibility in procuring fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. 

Both of these amendments are crucial for advancing farm to school procurement in your communities. These amendments are a direct response to ongoing calls, letters, and story sharing from farm to school advocates like you. Please join us in one last push to help these important farm to school priorities make it across the finish line! 

TAKE ACTION: Take five minutes right now to call both of your Senators and ask them to support these two farm to school amendments. Here’s how:  

Call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or look up contact information for your two Senators here.

Once you’re connected, leave a message like this: 

Hello, my name is [______] and I’m a constituent of Sen. [______]. I understand the Senate is debating the 2018 farm bill this week, and I’d like to ask that the Senator vote YES on two important, bipartisan amendments: (1) Vote YES on the Sen. Brown, Sen. Collin, Sen. Tillis and Sen. Hassan Geographic Preference amendment (#3179), which would allow schools to prioritize local, fresh produce when procuring foods for school meals. And, (2) Vote YES on Sen. Wyden’s amendment (#3129) to expand the unprocessed fruit and vegetable pilot program. These two amendments would be a win for children, farmers, and communities across our state. Thank you for passing along this message to the Senator, and for your time. 

If you work for a government agency or university and cannot lobby, you can still make a difference! Follow the same actions above, but instead of mentioning the specific policy asks, share general information about farm to school in your state and how you have had troubles with purchasing locally and/or how the pilot program has benefited you. Sharing information is not lobbying - it’s education, which all of us can do! 

Local food procurement in our nation’s schools is more than a win for kids and farmers - it’s strong agricultural policy. Make your voice heard and help us ensure that these important farm to school priorities are included the farm bill. 

USDA Announces 2018 Farm to School Grant Recipients

NFSN Staff Thursday, June 21, 2018

Congratulations to the newest USDA Farm to School Grant Program recipients! USDA announced today that 73 communities in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Guam  have been awarded farm to school grants to explore, expand, or scale up their farm to school activities. The 2018 awards total $5.2 million, and will impact 2.8 million students.

While this year’s funding will reach 6,006 schools, there are thousands more eager to have access to these crucial funds. In fact, 296 communities submitted applications this grant cycle, requesting nearly $21 million — four times higher than current available funding.

That's why the National Farm to School Network is working with a bipartisan and bicameral group of Congressional champions to strengthen this important grant program and support other farm to school priorities with the Farm to School Act. While the Farm to School Act has not been incorporated into current drafts of the farm bill, we’re continuing to work with our Congressional champions to find a legislative path to move these priorities forward.

Your voice is crucial in this ongoing work to advocate and advance farm to school at the federal level. If you haven’t yet done so, please take 2 minutes to add your name to our citizen sign-on letter and/or organizational sign-on letter in support of the Farm to School Act. And, continue sharing your #farmtoschool stories and successes with your members of Congress and on social media.

The USDA Farm to School Grant Program is an essential tool to improve the health of our children, our food system and our local economies. Join us in calling on Congress to continue and expand its support for this highly impactful program.

Evaluating Oregon’s Farm to School Policy

NFSN Staff Monday, June 18, 2018

As the farm to school movement has taken root in communities across the country over the past 20 years, so have efforts by U.S. state and territory legislatures to propose policies that support local procurement, school gardens and food and agriculture education in their states. In the last 3 years alone, over 200 farm to school policies have been proposed in state legislature and territories, which represents an important move toward the institutionalization of farm to school by generating awareness, building coalitions, and taking ownership of farm to school growth and implementation. But how do we know what makes state farm to school policies effective in programmatic implementation?  

To build on existing information about policy best practices, we partnered with RTI International to document and analyze one of the country’s most ambitious state farm to school policies. Oregon has been a pioneer in institutionalizing farm to school programs, and their legislative efforts to support local procurement have resulted in a total of $4.5 million in grants to 124 school districts. Our new report, State Policy Development for Oregon’s Farm to School Grant Program: Successes and Lessons Learned, examines the ins-and-outs of Oregon’s procurement policy efforts to provide an analysis of successes, challenges and lessons learned for future farm to school policy in both Oregon and other states and territories.

The study finds that Oregon’s farm to school legislation has been overwhelmingly successful in meeting its intended impacts, especially as they related to the effectiveness of the farm to school grants in providing access to locally grown, nutritious foods to school districts, principally low income. However, the process of conducting the study also revealed some challenges with the legislation, such as with logistics, purchasing strategies and grant administration. Farm to school policy advocates in other states and territories can learn from these findings to support their own policy efforts. The four overarching lessons from this study include: 

  • Importance of Inclusion: Not all school districts were able to participate in the Oregon Farm to School grant program when it was a competitive grant program. When the program was converted to an opt-in program and distributed grants to schools based on their number of school lunches served, participation increased among low-income school districts, distributors, and farmers.
  • Importance of Training: Although school districts may be somewhat familiar with administrative processes related to grants, the claim process for accessing the reimbursements through this grant program was significantly different, and districts would have benefited from additional training. 
  • Preparation of Implementing State Agencies: State agencies that will be implementing the state policies must be on board and adequately staffed to ensure timely processing of claims and provision of technical assistance. 
  • Clarity in Bill Language: The language of any farm to school legislation must specifically target the intent of the farm to school policy. For example, through this study, we learned that during the early implementation phase school districts were purchasing milk and bread produced in the state using grant funds. Although these were local products, schools were already purchasing them before the grant was available. Evolution of the policy resulted in new language that restricts “prior purchased processed or produced foods,” which now fully ensures that the grant funds go toward purchasing new locally grown and produced Oregon products, thereby stimulating the state’s economy.
Evaluating the effect of policies on program implementation is important for understanding policy successes and areas for improvement. This analysis of Oregon’s legislative efforts helps provide new information about the effectiveness of state policies that support healthy eating activities through a combination of targeted funding streams and state agency support. We hope its findings serve as a useful tool for policy advocates nationwide, as we together continue to strengthen state and territory legislative support of important farm to school efforts. Read the full report here

This project was funded by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read more on RTI International’s website.

Your Voice Needed: Put Farm to School in the Farm Bill

NFSN Staff Wednesday, May 16, 2018

By Maximilian Merrill, Policy Director

When it comes to policies that shape agriculture, food, nutrition and hunger in the United States, none are more paramount than the farm bill. This important piece of federal legislation is currently up for reauthorization, which presents ample opportunity for farm to school advocates to ensure policies that support healthy kids, thriving family farms and vibrant communities are prioritized in national food policy. How does that happen? Your voice! 

The process of developing a new farm bill has many phases - starting with both the House and Senate drafting and voting on their own versions of a farm bill. (Read more about the process from our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.) The House version of the bill was passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on April 18 and is expected to be voted on by the full House of Representatives soon. This House bill does not include any of the National Farm to School Network’s top three priorities. Our priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill are: 

  • Adopt the Farm to School Act of 2017 to increase mandatory funding and expand access for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program. 
  • Amend the Geographic Preference provision in the existing farm bill to allow the use of “location” as a product specification when procuring school food. Current law does not allow schools to explicitly require “local” or “regional” as a product specification in a food procurement request. 
  • Continue and expand to more states the Pilot Project for Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables and allow participating states more flexibility in procuring fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. 
The Senate has yet to release its version of the bill, which means there’s still time to ensure these three important farm to school priorities are included. However, it’s important that we take action quickly and demonstrate the breadth and strength of farm to school voices from across the country. The Senate bill, which may be introduced as early as next week, is one of the last opportunities for farm to school to make its way into this important legislation - so NOW is the time to make your voice heard! 

TAKE ACTION: Take five minutes to pick up the phone or write an email to both of your Senators about why farm to school is important in your community. Tell your story, share your success, and offer pictures and anecdotes about how farm to school is a triple win for kids, farmers and communities. It’s easy - here’s how: 

  • Call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or look up contact information for your two Senators here
  • Once you’re connected, leave a message like this: 

    • Hello, my name is [______] and I’m a constituent of Sen. [______]. I’m calling to ask that farm to school be prioritized in the Senate’s version of the farm bill. Farm to school enriches the connections communities have with fresh, healthy food and local food producers by changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and early care and education sites. Farm to school is strong agricultural policy that should be included in this important legislation! However, it’s been left out of the House version. That’s why I’m asking the Senator to support a Farm Bill that includes three things: (1) Adopts the Farm to School Act of 2017, (2) Updates “Geographic Preference” language so that schools can more easily purchase fresh food from local farmers, and (3) Continues and expands the successful Unprocessed Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program. [Share any personal stories about why these are important asks for your community.] Thank you for passing along this message to the Senator, and for your time. 
If you work for a government agency or university and cannot lobby, you can still make a difference! Follow the same actions above, but instead of mentioning the specific policy asks, share general information about farm to school in your state and how the USDA Farm to School Grant Program has been successful. Sharing information is not lobbying - it’s education, which all of us can do! 

Local food procurement in our nation’s schools is more than a win for kids and farmers - it’s strong agricultural policy. Make your voice heard and help us ensure that farm to school is included the farm bill. Continue to follow the National Farm to School Network here on our blog, in our e-newsletter and on social media for updates as the farm bill progresses and for more opportunities to be an advocate for farm to school. 

$5 Million for Farm to School in Funding Bill

NFSN Staff Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Last week, Senate and House leaders worked on an appropriations bill to fund the federal government through Sept. 30, and through this process, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) championed a huge win for farm to school! The final bill, which was signed by the President on Friday, includes $5 million in discretionary funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, which doubles the current available funding for this highly impactful and important program for one year. This is great news and a big victory for the farm to school movement!

Please join us in thanking Sen. Leahy and Sen. Cochran for this win, their continued efforts in championing farm to school, and for helping make healthy, local food in schools a reality for millions of children across the country. Give them a shoutout on social media (@SenatorLeahy, @SenThadCochran), write them a quick thank you note, or give their offices a call (Sen. Leahy at (202) 224-4242, Sen. Cochran at (202) 224-5054) to let them know that you appreciate their ongoing efforts to strengthen farm to school, and how farm to school has been a win for kids and farmers in your community. 

The National Farm to School Network has been advocating for an increase in funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program for several years. This important program increases the use of and improves access to local foods in schools – thus boosting farm income and economic opportunities – while also fostering experiential food education for our nation’s children. However, demand for the program is more than five times higher than available funding. Since 2013, USDA has received over 1,600 applicants requesting more than $120 million, though has only been able to make 221 awards from the $20 million available. 

The Farm to School Act of 2017 - co-sponsored by Sen. Leahy and Sen. Cochran in the Senate, and Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) in the House - addresses this funding issue and other important policy changes needed to strengthen and grow the USDA Farm to School Program. While last week’s surprise $5 million in discretionary funding is an incredible boost for the program, the funding is temporary. It’s important that we continue to advocate for a more permanent solution for sustaining this program and its impact for high-need communities across the country. 

As the National Farm to School Network continues to advocate for this marker bill to find a legislative vehicle that it can pass with, we need your help advocating to your member of Congress. Help us get your Senators and Representatives signed on as co-sponsors of the Farm to School Act of 2017. (See who’s already signed on here and here.) Reach out to them to share how farm to school is a win for your community, and to ask for their support on this important piece of legislation. If you haven’t yet, you can also add your name to our citizen and organizational sign-on letters, which helps us demonstrate strong grassroots support for this marker bill. 

Today we celebrate, but also continue our work to make farm to school opportunities accessible to every student, farmer and community across the country. Stay tuned to our blog for more policy news, updates and opportunities to make your voice heard. 

The State of State Policy

NFSN Staff Tuesday, November 21, 2017

By Maximilian Merrill, Policy Director
 
Farm to school policies have been a key strategy for making local food procurement, food education and school gardens a reality for millions of children. To support the continued growth of state policy advocacy, we’ve updated one of our signature resources that tracks how farm to school-supportive bills are strengthening the farm to school movement.

The State Farm to School Legislative Survey: 2002-2017 provides state-by-state summaries of every enacted, defeated or pending farm to school-related bill from January 1, 2002 through March 31, 2017. It also includes analysis and infographics on state farm to school legislative trends; case studies on successful farm to school advocacy efforts in Alaska, Oregon, Texas and Washington, D.C.; and, additional resources to help advocates learn about and replicate the wide variety of existing state farm to school laws, policies and programs. 

The State Farm to School Legislative Survey: 2002-2017 builds on a survey that was originally released in 2011, and updated in 2013 and 2014. This most recent version reflects legislation through March 31, 2017. With this update, we’ve found that 46 states, including Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have proposed 491 bills and resolutions supportive of farm to school activities. Forty of these states, including D.C., have enacted farm to school-related legislation. Since the last legislative survey published in 2014, Louisiana, Arkansas, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona have enacted their first farm to school legislation, with only a handful of states remaining that have yet to pass farm to school policy.

In the last two years alone, over 200 farms to school-related policies have been proposed in state and territory legislatures. The most popular policy initiatives were food education, funding and promotional events. Other popular policies included price percentage preference legislation to enable schools to purchase local foods and farm to school pilot programs. 

In addition to providing summaries on each of these proposed policies, the State Farm to School Legislative Survey also offers tools to help advocates advance new legislation in their states. Check out four case studies that analyze successful farm to school advocacy efforts and compare how different states have tackled farm to school policy opportunities with different approaches. While each state and territory has a different political climate, these case studies offer examples that can be replicated across the board. For example, farmer databases or local preference laws may be more attractive for a legislature concerned by budgets or boosting local jobs. 

The State Farm to School Legislative Survey is designed to offer farm to school advocates like you a roadmap to learn about and compare existing, potentially replicable state farm to school laws, policies and programs in order to advance new legislation in your state. So dig in, and start exploring the opportunities! 

Have questions about this new resource or need a thought partner on how to connect with your state lawmakers? Don’t hesitate to contact our Policy team for support! We look forward to hearing how your advocacy efforts continue to support the growth of farm to school, state by state. 
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