We couldn’t agree more: child nutrition programs should be about raising a generation of healthy kids. A recent article published in Politico’s The Agenda makes the case that the Child Nutrition Act (CNA) historically has supported farmers not children, stating, “The School Lunch Act, in fact, has served a scrum of agricultural and other interests for the entire 70 years it has existed, each angling for a bigger share of the federal lunch plate.” With this statement we take no issue – agriculture has long had a vested interest in child nutrition programs and what goes on the plate of future consumers.
The author further elaborates on the USDA Farm to School Grant Program saying, “Nor is it clear how kids will be aided by grants to ‘increase awareness of, and participation in, farm to school programs.” This could not be further from the truth unfolding at farm to school sites across the country. In this multi-billion dollar bill that historically has served to put calories – of any kind – on the plates of children, advocates have fought hard to put in place programs that support nutrition education like the USDA Farm to School Grant Program.
The USDA Farm to School Program was established with a $5 million allocation in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (the last iteration of CNA). The program helps schools and other eligible entities support farm to school activities in their communities. Supported activities include identifying community stakeholders, purchasing product from local and regional farmers and processors, building school gardens, taste-testing curricula and farm field trips. The program has been incredibly successful, having a 5-1 demand to supply ratio, with 75 percent of grants made to schools, education and public health agencies, and non-profits.
On the frontlines, communities are experiencing incredible behavior change and nutrition benefits from incorporating farm to school activities. In Georgia, we have increased student consumption of green leafy vegetables with the addition of local collard greens – a farmer went so far as to tweak his soil to grow less bitter greens for our students! And we did away with french fries in the cafeteria after students went crazy for roasted red ranch potatoes purchased from a local grower. This isn’t just what we have seen in Georgia and across the country – it’s what the data shows. Students who participate in farm to school activities eat more fruits and vegetables, are willing to try new foods, consume less unhealthy foods and sodas and choose healthier options in the cafeteria and at home.
In the delicate state of the CNA’s Reauthorization this year, those who support this win-win strategy for students, farmers and communities have managed to eke out another $5 million dollars for this important grant program in the Senate draft. In a tough fiscal climate, Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Stabenow have prioritized support for farm to school programs that help children, and in many rural areas, also support farming families. We commend the Senate Agriculture Committee’s leadership during this reauthorizing year – yes, they brokered a deal, and it included an increase in summer feeding programs (one of the most vulnerable times for hungry children) and protected healthy meal standards for children. Those mired in the fight for better child nutrition support swift passage of this bill in the Senate, because decisions impacting the health of our future generation should not be delayed any further.
The National Farm to School Network, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have made policy recommendations to increase the flexibility of potential recipients of USDA Farm to School Grants to include summer feeding and after-school programs, as well as to increase farmer participation – an essential aspect of farm to school activities. As the author notes, we have also supported language for more, “culturally appropriate” foods at schools serving Native Indian students.” We 100 percent stand by that. For too long the significant barriers to using culturally appropriate food in school cafeterias have been ignored. We should celebrate the rich diversity of agriculture products and traditional dishes in our country, and be able to serve them on school lunch menus.
The USDA Farm to School Grant Program is one of the smallest grant programs, and yet a very effective nutrition education program in the Child Nutrition Act. When we talk about increasing nutrition for children at this important moment, it is essential that nutrition advocates protect what little we have and push for more, not call into question hard-fought and won programs that help students be healthy.
Join us in urging Congress to continue its support of farm to school success by signing our petition. Add your name in support today.