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Learning garden grows food, curiosity and creativity

NFSN Staff Wednesday, October 05, 2016
By Ariel Bernstein, Farm to School and Education Fellow
 


The idea to grow a school garden at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, was first sprouted in Stacey Steggert’s special education class. Inspired by a book about a diverse cast of characters cultivating a community garden, her students were the first advocates of turning school grounds into an edible landscape. They began with potted plants in the classroom, which quickly turned into two raised beds in the school’s courtyard. As the first crops grew, so did students’ enthusiasm, and soon their small garden plot began to expand and capture the entire school’s attention. Now in its fourth year, the Audrey Stout Learning Garden is growing more than just plants; it’s nourishing academic engagement, inspiring creativity and sprouting young community leaders. 

Covering all 6,400 square feet of the high school’s center courtyard, the Audrey Stout Learning Garden is designed with multidisciplinary education in mind. The space is divided into four geographically-inspired sections: Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, each growing crops, herbs and flowers that can be found on these continents. In the Europe section, the German class grows cabbage and learns to make sauerkraut. On the Americas side, there’s a salsa garden with tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos for Spanish classes to explore cultural flavors. The African garden includes a patch of Arundo Donax, better known as African Reed Cane, that students harvest and transform into handmade paper. Plum trees, shiitake mushrooms and Chinese red noodle beans grow in the Asia garden. And to top it off, nine espaliered apple and pear trees grow in the garden, adding to the uniqueness of this beautiful and lush courtyard.

Throughout the space, the creative handiwork of art students can be seen in handcrafted tile benches and innovative wire sculptures. A Shakespeare class made connections to the garden by planting an “Ophelia garden” with rosemary, columbine, and daisies after reading Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Math classes use the garden to practice calculating area and put algebraic equations into real-life application. The SEEDS (Service, Environmental Education, Diversity, Sustainability) student club turns garden produce into canned goods that have won multiple ribbons at the country fair. And all students get to benefit from the garden’s fresh, healthy harvests, which occasionally are featured in school meals. 
The garden’s connection to healthy eating is one that’s especially important to Paula Damm, Shaker Heights High School nurse and co-leader of the Audrey Stout Learning Garden. “Health promotion is key in my role as school nurse, and promoting the garden promotes health,” she says. She’s seen first hand that when  students are excited about growing fresh food, they’re excited to eat it. “One students was particularly excited about the peas, which she helped grow in the spring. While looking at the full grown pea pods on the trellis, she said to me, ‘I feel like these are my peas! I feel like I created them!’ And she did! She continued to talk about her love for those peas well after they were harvested.” 
The Shaker Heights community is extremely diverse, and there are many areas in the city where healthy food access is a challenge. As students learn to grow food, they become educated about the role urban gardening can have in building healthy communities, and how young people can make a difference in the wider food system. Steggert and Damm tell the story of one student who, after participating in a vocational training program at a grocery store, was especially struck by the differences in produce selections between stores in wealthier and lower income communities. “Why don’t they think poor people like nice food?” he reflected. His gardening experiences at Shaker Heights High gave him the tools to make connections and observations about the food system, and has empowered him to become an advocate for healthy food in his own community. 
In the Audrey Stout Learning Garden, learning has no limits. This garden space provides students with unparalleled opportunities to experiment, to take risks, to make unexpected connections and to grow as leaders. As Steggert and Damm say, “It’s a learning garden!” There are no mistakes or failures, only opportunities to try new approaches and, well, learn! From planting to growing, from to eating to leading, the lessons taught in this school garden are more than just academic. These students are being shaped into well-rounded, reflective, and goal-oriented people who, throughout the process, are eating healthy!


Learn more about the Audrey Stout Learning Garden on Facebook and Tumblr

Beet Hummus Bravery

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 04, 2016
By Zack Silver, FoodCorps Service Member serving at the United Way of Passaic County in Paterson, New Jersey


Photo Credit: FoodCorps
Judah hated food. Well, that isn’t entirely true - he did eat some things. Cheerios in the morning if they didn’t touch any milk and he didn’t have to see nearby bowls of fruit. Plain pasta for lunch with no protein, veggies, or sauce. Snacks, but only crackers. On the days that the Center for Family Resources (CFFR) in Wayne, N.J., offered other meal options like yogurt or stir fry, Judah didn’t complain or bawl like some of his 4-year old classmates, or ask for alternatives. He simply sat in silence and watched his classmates eat. If I tried to put banana on his plate or serve steamed broccoli, that’s when the waterworks would begin.

However, as I started showing up often to CFFR to teach farm to school classes, presenting students with locally grown apples or inviting them to lay fresh compost on our garden’s raised beds, Judah became more trusting of me. When he watched his classmates cook new fruits and vegetables, from school-grown kale to exotic pomegranate and kiwi, he became reluctantly intrigued by these foods. A few months into the year, he progressed to allowing new food on his plate although he assured me he wouldn’t taste it, but would instead prod it with his fork and fingers when I asked him to, so he could feel the mushiness of a raspberry or the hardness of a rainbow chard stalk. These gestures were the first of many small steps Judah would take on his journey towards nutritional enlightenment.

Unfortunately for Judah, the final unraveling of his stubbornness was my blender. I brought it to class to make smoothies, salsa, and dip and its arrival was heralded with cheers from my preschoolers that would make a football stadium shake - it became the harbinger of fun and symbol for tasty produce. During classes, students would go in a circle to measure and add ingredients to blend, then line up for the coveted job of pressing the button and feeling the vibration under their fingers while classmates screamed in joy. Judah loved pressing the blender button. He reveled in his classmates’ yelps and stood triumphant as he made healthy treats.

Although Judah tried to resist, it was impossible to harvest a vegetable from his own garden, clean it tenderly, blend it with other ingredients, and still not want to taste it. And finally, one day in late spring, Judah succumbed. Our homemade beet hummus lay resplendent on his plate made from chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, lemon juice, and beets that he had pulled from the soil minutes before and chopped with a plastic knife. Judah gingerly dipped a pita chip into the magenta mass and brought it up to his lips where he stuck out his tongue and dabbed it with what was microscopically the smallest amount of food that could be considered “tasting.” He took another chip and a larger dab. I felt like I was at the top of a roller coaster, climbing inch by inch - I didn’t know when it was going to drop.

Five minutes later, I was spooning second helpings of beet hummus onto Judah’ plate, as he told me that “it tastes like raw candy!” To a preschooler that might be a standard compliment; to me, it was the highest praise I’ve ever received. The techniques that charmed Judah’s palate are helpful for kids at all levels of fruit and vegetable familiarity - they applaud courage, encourage taking just the smallest of steps, and help children find a new “yum” they never thought they could have.


FoodCorps is a national service organization that recruits, trains, and places AmeriCorps members to serve in high-need schools to connect kids to healthy food in school. Serving alongside educators and community leaders in 18 states, corps members focus on delivering hands-on lessons in gardening, cooking, and tasting healthy food; improving school meals; and encouraging a schoolwide culture of health.

National Farm to School Month 2016: One Small Step

NFSN Staff Monday, October 03, 2016
By Anna Mullen, Digital Media Associate



National Farm to School Month is here! For the next four weeks, millions of students, educators, farmers, families and food-enthusiasts around the country will be celebrating food education, school gardens and lunch trays filled with healthy, local ingredients. This annual celebration was brought to life by Congress in 2010 in order to raise awareness of the importance of farm to school as a means to improve child nutrition, support local economies and educate communities about the origins of their food. Everyone can join the festivities!  

Farm to school is a grassroots movement powered by people like you, who have taken small steps in their communities to bring more local food sourcing and food and agriculture education to our nation’s children. And those small steps have created big impact. The farm to school movement has grown from just a handful of schools in the late 1990s to reaching more than 23.6 million students nationwide today, with schools investing more than $789 million in their communities by purchasing local products from farmers, ranchers, fishermen and other food producers and growing 7,101 school gardens.

That’s why this October, we’re celebrating the small steps that everyone can take to get informed, get involved and take action to support farm to school in their communities and across the country. Because together, we can keep this movement growing! Here’s how you can get involved and celebrate National Farm to School Month: 

  • Take the pledge: Pledge to take one small step for farm to school this October, and you’ll be entered into our sweepstakes to win support for farm to school activities at the school or early care and education site of your choice. Take the pledge today!
  • Read inspiring stories: Visit our blog all month long to read inspiring stories of farm to school success and innovation. Guest blog posts include FoodCorps, School Nutrition Association, USDA Office of Community Food Systems, Chef Ann Foundation, National Young Farmers Coalition and many more! 
  • Spread the word: Share your farm to school successes with the world! Join our online conversation and tell us what small steps you’re taking this October. Use the hashtags #farmtoschool and #F2SMonth in your social media posts. 
  • Explore resources: Check out our free resources for planning and promoting celebrations in your community, including customizable posters and bookmarks, stickers, activity suggestions and communications tools. 
  • Donate to support our work: Invest in the future of farm to school. Donate to the National Farm to School Network and help us bring farm to school to communities across the country every month! Take one small step and make a charitable donation today. Take one small step and make a charitable donation today
We want to know: what small steps will you take this month? Share with us by taking the pledge! In addition to entering our sweepstakes, everyone who takes the pledge will receive weekly email suggestions of small steps to support farm to school in their community. Check out some of the small steps people across the country will be taking:  

Partnering with our local dairy. Our students will be naming a calf and we will be showcasing where our milk comes from. - Pennsylvania 

Our preschoolers will harvest the plants they’ve tended to all summer, and will learn how to prepare healthy meals with the food they have grown. - New Mexico 

Open our farm for tours with students. - Oklahoma 

Hosting a legislator in the lunch room visit. - Oregon

Our journalism students will go on local radio and write for the local paper, providing farm fresh recipes and nutritional tidbits. - Tennessee 

We will have lessons on how science is related to growing food. Soil, minerals, water cycle and weather will be taught in relation to growing food. - Florida 

Educating myself on this topic, so I can educate others in my community. - Ohio

Whatever steps you take, know that you are part of a movement that’s creating positive change by growing healthy eaters, supporting local agriculture and building vibrant communities. That’s worth celebrating!   

Thank you to this year’s National Farm to School Month sponsors, Captain Planet Foundation, Farm Aid, Organic Valley and High Mowing Organic Seeds, as well as the 200+ Outreach Partner organizations who are helping us spread the word about farm to school throughout October. And, thanks to you for being a farm to school champion in your community.

Happy National Farm to School Month! 

Roundup: Farm to School Month 2015

NFSN Staff Friday, October 30, 2015

This week's Farm to School Month blogs are sponsored by the Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative, which has empowered campus food service operations to serve fresh, healthy school meals; installed school gardens; launched food literacy programs; and assisted school districts in their aspirations to become centers of health and wellness. The Orfalea Foundation applauds the efforts of National Farm to School Network and is proud to be a sponsor of Farm to School Month. 

 Photo credit: Pioneer Elementary, Ashwaubenon, Wis.; photo submitted by Live54218

For the past 30 days, millions of schools, farmers and communities around the country have been celebrating the movement that’s connecting kids to fresh, healthy food and supporting local economies. From Maine to Alaska and everywhere in between, people are recognizing the power of farm to school to benefit people, planet and profit. That’s what National Farm to School Month is all about! 

At the National Farm to School Network, we’ve been leading Farm to School Month celebrations by sharing great stories of farm to school innovations, successes and impacts – like how schools are incorporating local, sustainably caught seafood into lunches and voices of youth who are leading the next generation in food activism. 

We also hosted a Big Day of Action to urge Congress to finish the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization (CNR) and strengthen farm to school across the country. More than 400 people posted messages on social media about the positive impact farm to school has in their communities, and many made calls to their legislators to urge support for more farm to school in CNR. Thank you to everyone who joined in! See highlights here.

Regionally, students celebrated Farm to School Month with events like the Great Lakes Great Apple Crunch, which had more than 500,000 student participants across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio chomping into local apples. In the Midwest, thousands of students enjoyed fresh, healthy food with a “Midwest Menu” on October 22, featuring local chicken, vegetables, apples, and a whole grain side that showcased local autumn bounty.  

In fact, there have been Farm to School Month celebrations in every state this month. Governors in Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Utah made proclamations declaring October Farm to School Month in their states. Vermont encouraged kids to try new foods with “Taste Test Mania,” Georgia got kids to dig their hands in the soil with “Rooting for Carrots,” and Washington students sampled local food for Taste Washington Day. We could keep going! 

 Photo credit: Odom Elementary School, Moultri, Ga. 

Dozens of you sent in your farm to school stories, as well. We heard that 8th graders in Maine participated in a Jr. Chef Challenge, students in Alabama harvested sweet potatoes, and chefs visited schools in New Jersey. Thanks to all who shared their farm to school stories and joined our network this month! And, a special congratulations to our sweepstakes winners -  Jayne W., Jennifer K., Carol T.S. and Ally M.! 

Farm to school happens year-round, and there are 336 days to continue growing and strengthening the movement before Farm to School Month 2016.  Join our network to stay up-to-date on the latest stories, new resources, policy actions, and learning opportunities – like the upcoming 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, June 2-4, 2016 in Madison, Wis. Let's keep the momentum going!

Thank you to each of our Farm to School Month sponsors – Orfalea Foundation, Organic Valley, Aetna Foundation, Chartwells, Mamma Chia and Stand2Learn – and the 160+ outreach partner organizations that have helped make Farm to School Month 2015 a success.  

Youth for Healthy Schools

NFSN Staff Wednesday, October 28, 2015
This week's Farm to School Month blogs are sponsored by the Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative, which has empowered campus food service operations to serve fresh, healthy school meals; installed school gardens; launched food literacy programs; and assisted school districts in their aspirations to become centers of health and wellness. The Orfalea Foundation applauds the efforts of National Farm to School Network and is proud to be a sponsor of Farm to School Month. 
 Photo credit: Food Justice Collective 
Bottom photo: Ron Triggs at VEGGI Farmers' Cooperative 
By Ron Triggs, Grade 8, Edgar P Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, New Orleans

I have always lived in a food desert, meaning fresh and healthy food options are not readily available where I live. Instead, there’s a gas station corner store down the street from my house where most people buy food. At school, I want to see more fresh, healthy, culturally relevant foods in our school lunches. The New Orleans student of color population is at risk when it comes to eating nutritious and culturally relevant school meals. In Orleans Parish, an alarming 83.8% of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch compared to the national average of 48.1%. And, students eligible for free or reduced-priced are disproportionately students of color - 88.1% of eligible students are Black

During the 2012-2013 school year, I and other youth organizers from Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools surveyed students, staff, and administrators in New Orleans schools about their perceptions of school food. Most students reported that school food is critical to getting them through the school day, and that they care about access to fresh, healthy and local food.

Try putting yourself in a student’s shoes. Why do you think students of color struggle to get food that is nutritious, healthy, culturally relevant and tasty in their schools? Is it just because they’re low income or there a bigger problem? I think the problem is not only about giving students access to healthy food at lunch – which is important – but is a problem directly related to our food system. 

We operate in an economy that privileges profit over people. The people who grow our food work hard for a living, but the majority of dollars generated in the food system go to those at the top – not the farmers. It’s a system that benefits corporations, not people. 

To better address the root causes of these issues – which we know affect the quality of our school meals – I joined a group called the Food Justice Collective, a collaboration between Rethink and VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative. The Food Justice Collective is a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic youth of color farming cooperative that shares the practice of collectively maintaining a farm plot as a way to unearth systems of racism and colonization that are at the root of why marginalized people lack access to healthy food, land and opportunities. Together, we’re working towards food sovereignty. 

We are engaged in farming to gain knowledge and skills to grow our own fresh, healthy, and culturally relevant food - the kind of food we are working to get in our schools. We are a ten member collective and we have invested our own money and time to make this collective work. We maintain and operate our own budget, purchase seeds and tools, and are developing relationships and an accountability structure necessary to carry out our farm plan.

In the Food Justice Collective, we practice cooperative economics: everyone works together with equal decision making power and ownership. We believe that by building a youth cooperative we can begin to rebuild a food system that guarantees money is invested within our own community, and that the quality of food available is our community is fresh, healthy, and culturally relevant. Our Food Justice Collective is a way for young farmers like myself to give my peers access the healthy food we really want. 

For us, food justice isn’t just about ending hunger or only about getting better school lunches. It’s about growing food naturally and being able to have food that is affordable, accessible and high quality. I would like to end with this Vietnamese proverb that we say at every Food Justice Collective meeting: 

An qua nho ke trong cay (in Vietnamese) 
Cuando comes fruta, recuerda quien planto el árbol (in Spanish) 
When eating fruit, remember who planted the tree. 


Kids Rethink New Orleans and VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative are partner organizations of Youth for Healthy Schools, a collaborative organizing network of 15 youth and parent organizations of color in 10 states. Youth for Healthy Schools builds youth power in organizing for healthy and fresh school meals and snacks, safe places to play and exercise, strong school food standards and wellness policies and school wellness centers. Learn more about Youth for Healthy Schools here. 

Keeping indigenous food knowledge alive with farm to school

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 27, 2015
This week's Farm to School Month blogs are sponsored by the Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative, which has empowered campus food service operations to serve fresh, healthy school meals; installed school gardens; launched food literacy programs; and assisted school districts in their aspirations to become centers of health and wellness. The Orfalea Foundation applauds the efforts of National Farm to School Network and is proud to be a sponsor of Farm to School Month. 

 Photo Credit: FoodCorps
By FoodCorps, with featured writing from Service Member Will Conway 
From medicinal plants to preparation of traditional meals, food has always been central to the cultural teachings of Native peoples in North America. But today, Native communities experience some of the highest incidence of type 2 diabetes among children and young adults, as well the lowest access to fresh foods. That’s why from North Carolina to Arizona, and Oregon to the Hawaiian islands, FoodCorps and its local partners are committed to helping to reverse those trends and supporting efforts to celebrate and expand indigenous food knowledge.

For Native communities, the principles of farm to school make sense, but they’re not new. As FoodCorps Arizona Service Member Will Conway explains: “Prior to the existence of schools, indigenous elders educated Native youth about agricultural practices and food. As the modern world encroaches on the traditions of Native people, what is now called ‘farm to school’ has become a means for reclaiming Native identity in Native communities. Educating Native youth about the sacred importance of food to their culture has become a weapon in the fight against the damaging impacts of the food system, which has disproportionally affected Native Americans.”

In Arizona alone, FoodCorps serves the Navajo, Tohono O’odham, and Apache tribes. On Navajo Nation, Tyrone Thompson is serving a second year with the STAR School, where he is bringing his experience as a farmer in the community to connect and engage kids with fresh, healthy food. 

“Schools are the biggest institution that feeds people in our community,” Tyrone explains. So he’s helping his student take part in the entire process of bringing food from soil to tray. They plant seeds, tend to growing plants on the school farm, harvest produce, and deliver vegetables to the school’s cafeteria, where they’re used in the school lunch program. For the STAR school, farm to school means going straight from the school garden through the doors of the cafeteria!

But getting fresh foods into students’ mouths is just one piece of farm to school in Native communities. Reconnecting kids with indigenous foods, culture and traditions is an important piece of the equation. “We connect with the elders,” Tyrone explains, “because that’s where most of the indigenous knowledge is held.” 

 
Students plants native corn in Painted Desert, Arizona (Photo Credit: FoodCrops) 
In Tuba City, Will Conway works with Navajo farmers and elders to help connect kids to traditional food knowledge. They’ve set up an education plot at the community farm where the farmers and elders can teach kids about traditional plants and growing methods. “Children ranging from pre-k to 6th grade are planting native corn, melons, and beans using traditional tools,” he explains. “The elder recently taught the youth the role of corn in the Hopi creation story and the importance of preserving the corn seeds native to Tuba City.” 

And in White River, FoodCorps service member Maya Harjo is helping students from the White Mountain Apache Tribe think about food as a powerful economic tool for the community. She teamed up with the Arrowhead Business Group Camp for cooking challenge where students had 30 minutes to create a unique food product that incorporated traditional foods, as well as a sale pitch that connected the product to their tribal community. The challenge was an entertaining jumping-off point for getting students to think about food as a means of strengthening the community's economic independence and bolstering traditional food ways. 

This hands-on food education is giving students in Native communities an opportunity to rekindle their connection with Native heritage, as well as empowering them to make healthy food choices that improve health outcomes. Tapping into these roots helps gives farm to school in these communities staying power.

“Indigenous knowledge is being lost,” says Tyrone, “but it’s something we are able to keep alive through food.”


To read more about healthy habits and heritage in native communities, visit the FoodCorps Arizona blog.

School Food Justice: strengthening school meals & farm to school in Vermont

NFSN Staff Wednesday, October 21, 2015
By Anore Horton, Nutrition Initiatives Director, Hunger Free Vermont, and Betsy Rosenbluth, Project Director, Vermont FEED

 Photo Credit: Vermont FEED

When Douglas has a full stomach at school, he can focus better on that sticky math problem in front of him.

When Farmer Lauren can sell her veggies or beef to the local school, she can run a stronger business that feeds her community and keeps farms viable.

When Chef Nancy has more students lining up for lunch in her school cafeteria, she has the revenue to expand her offerings and buy more local foods.

It’s easy to connect the dots between these items. And it’s why anti-hunger organizations have been teaming up with farm to school advocates in Vermont to strengthen school meal programs.

To borrow a term from the business world, we call it the “virtuous cycle” of school meals. By expanding meal participation and the food programs offered (like afterschool meals), we ensure that fewer children are hungry, so they are more likely to be ready to learn and participate.  With more kids participating in school meal programs, program revenue climbs, so schools can buy more fresh, nutritious, and local products. And with higher quality meals (along with the greater sense of ownership local food brings) more students buy those meals, boosting participation even more. And so the cycle continues. 

But where’s the leverage point to nudge this wheel into motion?

There are several. Over the past three years, Hunger-Free Vermont and VT FEED (a project of Shelburne Farms and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of VT), have focused on expanding universal meals through the new Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the 2010 School Nutrition Act —along with promoting Provision 2 of the National School Lunch Act.  

In just two years, these two programs have brought universal meals to around 50 Vermont schools – more than 15% of Vermont’s students. 

After using the CEP less than six months, school principals reported at least a  10% increase in  participation in school meals (and as high as 38%). They also reported improved school meal program finances, and greater use of local foods and fresh fruits and vegetables. The cycle set in motion!

According to Winooski Schools Superintendent Sean McMannon, “The positive financial impact of CEP has given us more flexibility to purchase local foods.  We have more local food on the salad bar, and have been able to provide more variety in our offerings.”  

James Taffel, Co-Principal at Barre City Elementary and Middle School, also celebrated their move to universal meals, which has given students more variety and choice.  “We started offering virtually limitless fruits and vegetables of many kinds, supporting local farms and farmers whenever we can.  Kids just take what they want, and the fabulous part is that they love it!”

Then there are the “spin-off” impacts. Schools reported fewer behavior referrals and school nurse visits. One more check in the “plus” column! And by providing breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students, they’ve erased the stigma of receiving a “free” or “reduced price” meal. Another plus!  The increase in demand for local foods also makes wholesale school food programs more viable and identifies them as important customers, rather than simply recipients of donated or low cost products.

In addition to taking advantage of CEP, the Vermont farm to school/anti-hunger coalition has been urging schools to move breakfast after the bell. Research shows that the single most effective intervention a school can make to increase breakfast participation is to move breakfast after the bell in some form (grab and go, classroom, ‘second chance’, etc.). 

Over 31 million children receive low cost or free lunches through the National School Lunch Program, which runs every school day, 180 days a year. Those lunches – especially when you factor in growing breakfast, afterschool snack and summer programs – are essential for student health and nutrition. 

By putting more fresh local products on the menu, farm to school programs simply make those lunches and snacks healthier. And by getting students to taste, grow, and cook these foods, farm to school ensures the food makes it into their bellies! All students can participate in the benefits of the local foods movement!

Raise the (barn) roof! Schools invest over half a billion dollars in local communities

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 20, 2015
By Deborah Kane, Director, Office of Community Food Systems, USDA Food and Nutrition Service

 Photo Credit: USDA Food and Nutrition Service

You know what excites me more than October’s succulent pears, more than its sweet squash, and even more than the National Farm to School Month celebrations that happen on each of its days across the nation? $598 million dollars. 

That, according to preliminary results from USDA’s second Farm to School Census, is how much schools across the country spent on local foods during school year 2013-14. Earlier today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this remarkable figure, which represents an increase of $212 million (or 55%) over final results from the last Census, conducted two years ago. 

Preliminary numbers also show that more than 42,000 schools are involved in farm to school activities. Whether through buying local foods, building school gardens, or taking a field trip to a local farm, these programs improve child nutrition and provide dynamic educational experiences for students, all the while providing new market opportunities for local and regional farmers. 

Indeed, the benefits derived from adopting farm to school strategies are significant. The Census found that school districts participating in farm to school activities enjoyed at least one of the following advantages: 
  • Greater support from parents and the community
  • Greater acceptance of the new meal pattern
  • Lower school meal program costs
  • Reduced food waste 
  • Increased participation in school meals
These early results are impressive, but I don’t think they represent all of the extraordinary work happening across the nation. That’s why, from now until November 20, 2015, USDA is encouraging all food service directors to visit the Census site and follow the three easy steps outlined there to make sure their districts are included in the final count. 

 Photo Credit: USDA Food and Nutrition Service
We did a “hoo rah” at USDA when these early results came in – and we’ll surely do another when final results are released in early 2016 – but it should be noted we’ve been celebrating several other milestones and accomplishments this Farm to School Month as well. Earlier this month we cheered on USDA Farm to School grantees, and all those who support them, when distributing a summary of grants awards and impacts over the last three years of USDA Farm to School grant-making. Among other things, the report showed that the 221 awards we’ve made have helped 12,300 schools improve nutritious meal options made with local ingredients for 6.9 million students, while expanding market opportunities for family farmers and ranchers in their communities. And last week, we celebrated the announcement that our work within the Food and Nutrition Service will now be housed in a new Office of Community Food Systems. 

We’re raising the (barn) roof but know that celebrations are always more fun with a friend or two in tow. Please do join us for a review of farm to school accomplishments to date and a discussion of what’s to come for community food systems work at USDA next Thursday, October 29, at 2:00 pm ET. 

To stay up to date on all of the latest news from the Office of Community Food Systems, sign up for our e-letter

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