Recent media coverage has questioned the importance of improving school meals as a strategy for supporting child health – one of the fundamentals influencing the work of the National Farm to School Network and our partners. Yet, thousands of communities across the country have experienced firsthand the significant impact farm to school initiatives have on creating a generation of healthy eaters. Here’s how we know that farm to school works:
Fruit and vegetable consumption is going up
“We're having a fruit and vegetable shortage because we've increased consumption so much," says Donna Martin of her schools in rural Georgia that feature local produce on the lunch menu. Studies show that farm to school activities improve early childhood and K-12 eating behaviors, including choosing healthier options in the cafeteria, consuming more fruits and vegetables at school and at home, consuming less unhealthy foods and sodas, and increasing physical activity. A study published just this month in the journal Childhood Obesity confirmed again that students are eating more healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables, and that plate waste is not increasing.
Obesity rates are going down
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation highlights cities, counties and states that have started to see their childhood obesity rates go down in recent years. They’ve observed that communities that take a comprehensive approach are making progress. Farm to school is a comprehensive approach. Not only are students exposed to healthy eating in school, but food education also travels home. Doreen Simonds, Food Services Director for Waterford School District in Ortonville, Mich., explains, “We hear back from kids and parents that they are trying new foods at home, going to farmers markets now, and using the Double Food Bucks too.” Through farm to school practices, we are laying the groundwork for reversing years of unhealthy lifestyles.
Education is key to fostering healthy choices
Farm to school programs provide experiential education opportunities for kids to taste, try, and eventually like new foods – to make choices for themselves. Farm to school is about creating positive food experiences for kids, with farm tours, cooking demos, school gardens, and farmers in the classroom. As quoted in the Huffington Post, Dora Rivas with the Dallas Independent School District – the second-largest system in Texas and 14th-largest in the country – has seen their farm to school program change everything from what kids are eating to the way they are learning. "We feel like children remember and are more excited about trying new foods when they actually experience it," Rivas said. "School gardens are a great way to introduce them to new foods."
Education is key to facilitating behavior change, and change requires time and patience. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 95 percent of schools are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standard requirements for school meals. More than 40,000 schools across the country have changed their approach to child health and food education by implementing farm to school activities. And farm to school continues to come up as a successful strategy to improve child nutrition again and again and again in Congressional hearings preparing for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this year.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: students who are properly introduced to new foods through farm to school are more likely to adopt healthy eating habits, participate in their school's meal plan and are less likely to waste food, which results in a better bottom line for schools and healthier kids.
Creating change in the lunchroom – whether it be farm to school or the new nutrition standards – is never easy. But do we let our kids give up easily when they are trying something new? We don’t! We encourage them to keep trying, and teach them to be patient.