2024 National School Nutrition Association Survey Highlights the Growing Farm to School Trend, Importance of School Meals for All

NFSN Staff
May 3, 2024

By Kelcie Creel, NFSN Policy Intern

In honor of School Lunch Hero Day, we want to highlight the perspectives of child nutrition professionals who are doing the on-the-ground work of farm to school. All signs point to the critical impact of the farm to school movement and values-aligned school meals throughout the country. As our movement continues to grow, thousands of school nutrition directors recently expressed their plans to buy locally sourced ingredients, incorporate scratch-cooking into their menus, and get students interested in nutrition through farm to school programming, taste tests, and other educational activities.

Farm to School and Scratch Cooking are Growing Trends

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), a nonprofit organization that represents 50,000 school nutrition professionals nationwide, recently released its 2024 School Nutrition Trends Report. The seventy-five-page document details the findings from a nationwide survey of 1,343 school nutrition directors, conducted in the Fall of 2023. SNA aimed to identify its members’ implementation challenges, reimbursement trends, programs’ financial sustainability, attitudes toward federal nutrition standards, and menu trends.

SNA asked nutrition directors about their planned menu changes and goals for the year ahead. The top three planned menu changes included expanding menu options (65%), increasing locally grown or raised food options (56%), and increasing the number of scratch-prepared meals (53%).

Additionally, nutrition directors also reported their strategies for increasing student acceptance of their planned menu changes. These strategies included having their students taste test the meals (66%), implementing farm to school or school gardening programs (40%), and conducting nutrition education initiatives (40%).

Challenges in School Food

Responses regarding challenges were not surprising; the top three administrative challenges for SY 2023-24 were cost increases (99.3%), staff shortages (90.5%), and menu item shortages (87.2%). 

These top-three reported challenges are the same as were reported in last year’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Report. Breakfast items (74.8%), entrees (74.1%), and snacks (58.4%) were reported the most frequently as significantly or moderately difficult to procure whereas items such as vegetables (42.1%), condiments (43.0%) and fruits (44.3%) were reported the least frequently as items that are difficult to procure. Curiously, directors from the southeastern United States were more likely to report challenges in milk procurement than any other FNS region in the nation. 

This news comes at a time when school budgets are facing historic disinvestment. School nutrition directors are often faced with a myriad of challenges where they’re responsible for nourishing students while complying with stringent federal nutrition standards, all while operating under a tight budget. 

Supply Chain Assistance Funds Improving School Food

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA announced four rounds of funding through the Supply Chain Assistance (SCA) program. This program provided more than $3.5 billion to child nutrition programs to navigate supply chain challenges spurred by the pandemic. These SCA funds were complemented by other COVID-19 relief era programs such as the Local Food for Schools Cooperative Agreement Program and the Farm to School State Formula grants. 

In the survey, food service directors shared the direct impacts of the SCA funds since 2022. These include: 

  • Menu improvements (62.4%, n = 1,109 directors)
  • Purchasing new equipment (56.4%)
  • Supporting staff through increased personnel, increased wages, and bonuses (40.1%), 
  • Increased local sourcing (36.1%)
  • Delayed meal price increases (24.5%), 
  • Increasing access to free school meals (13.7%), 
  • And nutrition education initiatives (9.9%), among others. 

These results demonstrate the diverse and far-reaching benefits that come from policies that invest in school meals. Time is of the essence to continue to advocate for sustained funding for child nutrition programs.

Universal School Meals and School Meal Debt

The report also shares positive outcomes of School Meals for All (also known as universal free meals) and the growing school meal crisis. SNA found that roughly half of the respondents’ schools offer free school breakfast through the Community Eligibility Provision districtwide (51%), and nearly half offer free lunch districtwide (49%).  

The respondents whose districts offer universal meals reported on the benefits they’ve observed after implementing the program. 87% reported universal meals have increased participation in their school meal program. Additionally, 66% of the respondents reported observing a more positive social environment in the cafeteria.

However, among the respondents whose districts do offer universal school meals, 91% reported having unpaid school meal debt. The range of debt among the 808 school districts reporting ranged from $10.00 to $1,000,000. Within the current system, if school meal debt becomes large enough at the local level, it can contribute to a negative cycle that leaves families further indebted while not adequately addressing students’ nutrition, as illustrated below. 

When property taxes increase, families in economically diverse communities are left with an even bigger financial burden. As the cost of living continues to increase, many working-class families face the difficult situation of paying their bills or sending their children to school without lunch money or a nutritious meal from home. 

This inequitable system disproportionately affects families who are in the gap of not being able to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. The best way to combat unplanned school meal debt is to create state-level School Meals for All policies, which can allow school nutrition directors to adequately plan their budgets and focus on serving nutritionally-dense, high-quality meals to students. 

Values-Aligned Universal Meals: The Future of School Nutrition Administration

The growing interest in scratch cooking and purchasing local food, in combination with benefits from universal access to school meals, points to the layer cake of benefits that values-aligned universal meals can have on students, directors, growers, and communities. 

This report solidifies how the systems change efforts of National Farm to School Network partners is taking hold across the nation in local communities. Now is the time to celebrate these wins, and continue to embrace policies that can further support our shared values of economic justice, environmental justice, health impact, racial equity, animal welfare, and respecting workers rights. The National Farm to School Network has many more resources about advocating for value-aligned universal meals on our website if you’d like to learn more. 

USDA Final Rule on Child Nutrition Program Standards Includes Major Wins for Farm to School

NFSN Staff
May 1, 2024

By Karen Spangler, NFSN Policy Director

On April 25, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the final rule for its updates to the Child Nutrition Program (CNP) standards. This rule will impact meals served in schools and early childhood settings by setting the requirements for important nutrients, meal patterns and types of foods, operations, and purchasing that programs must meet to be reimbursed by USDA. 

Specifically, this update covers the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, summer food programs, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program for early childhood, after-school, and adult care settings. 

National Farm to School Network (NFSN) is proud to see that a number of our longtime policy priorities were adopted in the rule, including buying local, strides in equity, and better career access. This major win is an outcome of many years of NFSN and our movement’s collective advocacy to advance farm to school and an equitable food system, and we are excited to share these updates.  

Below are some top takeaways from this comprehensive update. Over the next few months, NFSN will continue to promote awareness and support our Partners in these important changes.

  • Timing: This rule will be in effect as of July 1, 2024. However, many requirements specifically phase in over time to give child nutrition program operators and vendors time to prepare. Programs will not be required to make new menu changes until School Year 2025-2026.
  • Local Procurement: Starting in July, child nutrition programs will now be able to use “locally grown,” “locally raised,” or “locally caught” as a specification requirement for fresh and minimally processed food items. Under current rules, local food can be preferred in bid scoring criteria but bids cannot specify a food must be local. This change simplifies the geographic preference process for child nutrition programs, making it easier to purchase local foods.
  • Native Foods: USDA strengthens its previous guidance that traditional Indigenous foods may be served in reimbursable school meals by including it in this rule. The regulation’s definition of “traditional” means any food that has traditionally been prepared and consumed by an American Indian Tribe, including wild game meat, fish, seafood, marine animals, plants, and berries. It also finalizes the proposal to allow vegetable substitution for grains in programs serving American Indian or Alaska Native students, and in Guam and Hawai’i.  
  • Nutrient Targets: This rule lowers sodium limits in 2027 (15 percent for lunch and 10 percent for breakfast) and establishes limits on added sugars for the first time in yogurt, cereal, and flavored milk, as well as a weekly limit of no more than 10 percent of calories from added sugars in school lunch and school breakfast. This rule does not include their proposed limit on added sugars for grain-based desserts at breakfast in items like pastries or granola bars; USDA will continue to seek input on how to address these items. 
  • School Nutrition Profession: The rule finalizes the proposed flexibility for hiring an individual without a bachelor’s or associate’s degree as a school nutrition program director, if they have at least 10 years of school nutrition program experience. 
  • Buy American: The rule strengthens the requirement for school meals to buy domestic products by providing greater specificity on how product exceptions may be applied, sets documentation and contract requirements, and creates a phased-in limit on non-domestic food purchases.
  • Plant Proteins: It supports flexibility to include plant proteins such as beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds, or prepared foods like hummus, in reimbursable meals and snacks. This change not only supports a healthy variety of protein options, but can also help programs better serve students with religious or dietary needs.

As with the proposed rule, the final regulation covers many detailed areas of Child Nutrition Program compliance. For more information on specific requirements, consult these USDA resources:

This rule is the culmination of a decade-long process to bring the nutrition standards for meal programs in alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommendations on components like salt, sugar and fat. This alignment has been required by law since 2010 but is only now being fully implemented through this final durable rule (“durable” is a term in regulation to differentiate from a transitional rule that is expected to be replaced). 

We applaud USDA for its careful consideration of the more than 100,000 comments it received in response to the proposed rule during the comment period last year, and appreciate the challenge of crafting an approach that supports children’s health and recognizes the constraints under which programs operate.   

We look forward to hearing from our Partners and other stakeholders in the farm to school movement about how this rule will impact you. If you have a story you would like to share with NFSN to help us communicate how these updates will affect local purchasing, the meal patterns you offer, or the success of Child Nutrition Programs, we would like to hear from you! Please reach out to Policy Director Karen Spangler (karen@farmtoschool.org) or Policy Specialist Ryan Betz (ryan@farmtoschool.org) to get in touch. 

Blog Series | Concluding the 2023 Racial Equity Learning Lab Cohort and Crafting the Next Journey

NFSN Staff
April 1, 2024

Register for the upcoming May 17 microseries session here

By Trisha Bautista Larson, NFSN Program Manager

Word cloud response from the Fall 2023 Cohort answering the question, “Who are the communities you want to represent in the Racial Equity Learning Lab?”

Recap of the journey

Between September 2023 through February 2024, a group of 13 incredible Farm to School advocates and practitioners forged connections with one another and practiced the art of co-learning and co-creating in the Racial Equity Learning Lab. The Fall 2023 Lab cohort members primarily worked in food, nutrition, and agricultural education spaces and had the opportunity to build upon each others’ knowledge across fields and geographic differences towards advancing racial equity in Farm to School. For example, cohort member Patrilie Hernandez came with the experience of working across multiple disciplines in their role: “I partner with food, nutrition, wellness, and health providers on integrating strategies to help build thriving communities.” 

Many cohort members expressed deep appreciation for the opportunity to work with individuals with a range of perspectives whose roles vary in Farm to School. For some, the Lab experience provided them with courage and a way of articulation to advocate for equity-related systems changes in their respective work. Martine Hippolyte expressed her appreciation for the Lab by sharing:

The first year of implementing the Racial Equity Learning Lab has been a learning experience not only for the cohort members, but also for us at National Farm to School Network. Through the Lab experience, we acquired and practiced new tools such as Appreciative Inquiry, Dynamic Governance, Sharing Circles for storytelling, and value-based facilitation styles. 

Appreciative Inquiry guided us into thinking about conventional problem statements in a positive way to foster sustainable action. This approach to systems thinking encouraged us to come up with solutions based on the assets and strengths that already exist within our respective work and communities. 

Through the principles of Dynamic Governance, we were able to encourage all voices to be heard in decision-making while carefully and intentionally balancing this with consent. While our Equity Consultant, Alena Paisano and I, an NFSN staff member, served as the main facilitators, cohort participants were invited throughout to co-facilitate, lead discussions, and bring topics that matter most to them. Discussions remained dynamic about the pre-work materials and served as grounding information before diving into real-time events or matters related to Farm to School or food system work. A cohort member emphasized, “having conversations with people that don’t necessarily have the same consciousness without doing harm” as a key learning from the process. The Lab followed a roadmap but still allowed for the kind of spaciousness needed to explore new ideas and encouraged thought-partnerships between cohort members to support each other with their work. 

While the Lab experience has concluded for the 2023 Fall cohort members, their learning journey still continues. We wanted to share with you highlights from what an equitable farm to school looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds like for some of the cohort members:

“I see an equitable farm to school culture as one that carefully balances the big picture work with the day to day lived experience of everyone involved - moving at a pace that doesn’t leave people and their unique experiences out…”

Michelle Howell, Farmer/Owner of Need More Acre Farms 

“In my ideal world, an equitable farm to school program would provide the same opportunities and resources to all schools or participants to meet their needs…everyone doesn’t develop at the same pace and we have to meet people where they are to help them reach the same outcome” 

Marcus Glenn, Houston Independent School District Nutrition Services - Food and Agriculture Literacy Program 

“In my role, an equitable farm to school system looks fun and futuristic. It’s inviting to future farmers, promotes innovation, and challenges youth to see food differently. It smells clean, fresh, and full of opportunity. It tastes delicious and comforting – like home. It sounds calming, peaceful, and a safe space.”

Jade Clark, Director of Agriculture at PURE Academy

The 2023 Racial Equity Learning Lab cohort's in-person meeting in New Orleans, along with NFSN staff members

What’s next? 

Participants from the Lab have each taken away unique learnings and action items from their collective experience. As a way to close the Lab, the Fall 2023 cohort members organized an “application inventory” to generate inspiration and concrete ideas for actions to keep in mind beyond their six-month participation. The cohort shared personal and work related initiatives which include:

  • Expanding on Land Acknowledgement practices; building upon verbal acknowledgments to one that activates audiences into action as well as investment and honoring of Indigenous peoples
  • Continuing to listen and prioritizing authentic relationships with community members before diving into operational work
  • Shifting mindsets to channel a more asset and strength-based approach to Farm to School programming
  • Building in “co-design” frameworks in future projects and other value-based facilitation strategies when collaborating with communities and stakeholders
  • Developing holistic positionality statements that can be integrated in webinar and other presentation introductions
  • Re-imagining ways to evaluate programs and strategies - to one that uplifts data transparency, collaboration, and ownership

In an effort to share these learnings with the broader farm to school movement and our Partners, NFSN has designed two public microseries workshops as an extension of the original Lab experience. The microseries will be a great opportunity to bridge the connections made from the first cohort as we prepare for the next group of practitioners to build community with one another this fall season. The microseries will highlight key topics from the experience and jumpstart conversations on ways to operationalize equity in the way we work in Farm to School.

The next microseries will be hosted on May 17, 2:00 - 3:30pm EST. Learn more and register here

From Mardi Gras to Spring: Nurturing Growth in New Orleans Gardens and Classrooms

NFSN Staff
March 4, 2024

Guest blog by Edible Schoolyard New Orleans

As the Mardi Gras glitter fades here in New Orleans, we begin to anticipate a bright and floral spring. Zone 9b temperatures are generally good to us and our crops here, minus one hard freeze we sustained in early January, which took out our tropicals—bananas, papayas and some others. Broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, arugula, lettuce, snap peas, collard and mustard greens, citrus, and winter flowers continue to thrive. Zone 9b is funny in this way—it is conducive to year-round production yet still is overcome with a gray and slow sense of winter.

Many of our teachers and students walked or marched in Mardi Gras parades this month. It is always a festive and blissfully exhausting season with different degrees of revelry on the calendar every weekend from Three Kings Day all the way until Fat Tuesday—a month or more.

Early spring means the production of many of our community’s favorite crops such as greens, broccoli and cabbage, and a soon-to-be flower explosion!

Before our schools closed for the week of Mardi Gras, our teachers engaged in a teacher wellness training with the Coalition for Compassionate Schools here in New Orleans. Trauma significantly affects 60% of New Orleans youth with symptoms of PTSD—a rate that is four times the national average (Orleans Parish School Board, 2019).  After learning how repeated exposure to trauma can affect student learning, as well as social/emotional learning practices we can use to nurture self-awareness and relationship building in our classrooms earlier this fall, the focus turned back to teachers and practices they can use to sustain themselves during trying and low-energy moments of teaching. These practices include “power thoughts” for self-compassion such as “I love this unique and special job, and it has unique and special challenges”.

All of our garden and kitchen teachers are full-time staff members at one of four open admissions public charter schools in New Orleans, operated by FirstLine Schools. Fully embedded into the enrichment program at these schools, Edible Schoolyard is a signature program of FirstLine, offering garden and kitchen classes to a span of grade levels, multiple days per week, in tandem with other enrichment classes like PE, music, art and dance. Within this framework, our teachers plan, shop, prep for, and teach five 45-60 minute classes per day on average (as well as care for their garden and kitchen spaces!), for students who range from kindergarten to 8th grade. All of this work is supported by two garden staff who help to maintain the spaces, coordinate volunteers, and supply seedlings from our greenhouse.

Our Program Manager, Zach O’Donnell, and garden team grow most of our seedlings in our greenhouse.

Upon interviewing some of our students to celebrate their learning at our annual fundraiser, “An Edible Evening”, they referenced making connections to food and the natural world, as well as the social/emotional and academic components that come with culinary and horticultural education. One student said, “In science class we have been talking about plants and how they can die and how they look the same in the life cycle and we compared them to their parents. I knew all the answers because we had just gone to garden class, too”—referencing our unit on the plant life cycle. Others expressed feeling safe and included in garden and kitchen classes: “Garden makes me feel calm and relieved. Let the stress grow into another plant.” Most expressed a respect for life and the value of the food provided by our gardens and local farms and all of the creatures associated: “The bees bring me joy, because they pollinate the plants so the plants can make food.” Check out more student stories on our website.

This 3rd grader said  “In Science class we have been talking about plants and how they can die and how they look the same in the life cycle and we compared them to their parents. I knew all the answers because we had just gone to garden class, too.”

As we continue to hone our craft and share our work with others, we look forward to connecting with anyone who will be at the Growing School Gardens Summit in San Diego next month. We were lucky enough to connect with NFSN’s Racial Equity Learning Lab and show them one of our schools this past Fall. There is so much to learn and share as we continue on through the cycles of nature, as they remain our steady rhythm and at the same time become more unexpected. Follow and reach out to us at @esynola!

For tickets to An Edible Evening, visit our event website. Join us  for a truly unique garden party under the stars featuring local restaurants and bars, music, and student work!  Your support will enable us to continue to offer high quality food and nutrition education to 2,800 New Orleans children.

Graphics That Demonstrate The Mutual Benefits of Farm to School and School Meals for All

NFSN Staff
February 28, 2024


Farm to School advocates have long been at the helm of state-level School Meals for All coalitions. Through study analysis of four successful campaigns, National Farm to School Network illustrated the pivotal role of farm to school initiatives and values-aligned1 policies in driving School Meals for All advocacy. By integrating farm to school principles into both policy language and messaging, advocates have fortified the foundation of School Meals for All initiatives. Incorporating key talking points about the benefits of farm to school such as economic development, workers' rights, and meal quality enhances bipartisan support and diversifies coalition membership to include farm to school advocates and local producers.

In this article, we aim to showcase a selection of graphics employed by state advocates, highlighting the mutual benefits of farm to school programs and School Meals for All policies. These visuals serve as powerful tools in illustrating the symbiotic relationship between farm to school initiatives and the broader goal of ensuring access to nutritious meals for all students.


1 Values-aligned purchases happen when buyers make purchasing decisions based on more than price or even where the product was grown. Values can encompass the characteristics or identities of the producer or business, their business practices, or characteristics about the product itself. These values will also vary by community and context. See National Farm to School Network’s six community values here.


At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government issued meal waivers that made school meals available at no cost to students. However, these waivers expired in June 2022. Seeing the multifaceted benefits School Meals for All had on their communities, state policymakers began introducing bills to codify state-level School Meals for All policies. 

By the end of 2022, three states (California, Maine, and Colorado) had passed permanent policies with several states passing temporary measures. By the end of 2023, more than 30 states introduced School Meals for All legislation and eight states (California, Maine, Colorado, New Mexico, Vermont, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Michigan) passed permanent policies.

Previous policy analysis from the National Farm to School Network in 2022 demonstrates that the prevalence of School Meals for All policies is highly intertwined with policies that support farm to school. This continues to be the case in 2024, where seven of the eight states (88%) with permanent School Meals for All policies also have local food purchasing incentive programs. The eighth state, Massachusetts, has introduced legislation (H.3993) to create a pilot local food purchasing incentive program. Two states, Colorado and New Mexico, expanded their incentive programs through their successful School Meals for All bills. Rhode Island (H.B. 6007) and Illinois (H.B. 2471) have also included local purchasing language in School Meals for All bills they introduced. 

In short, the intertwining success of School Meals for All policies and farm to school initiatives underscores the transformative impact of holistic approaches to nutrition and community well-being. 

Examples of Graphics
Below are examples of graphics developed by state advocates that demonstrate this impact. These graphics have been adapted by coalitions across the country to fit their unique contexts. 

The Virtuous Cycle of Expanding School Meals & Farm to School


Source: Hunger-Free Vermont and the Vermont Farm to School Network

The Vermont Farm to School Network and Hunger Free Vermont developed the “Virtuous Cycle” of farm to school and School Meals for All. Advocates in the state have been sharing iterations of this graphic dating back to at least 2016. The Virtuous Cycle shows how investments in school meals, such as universal school meals, a fully funded grants program, and a local food purchasing incentive program as inputs can create a cycle that continues to elevate school meals. By increasing participation in school meals, the program generates more revenue for schools, which in turn allows for more local purchasing, elevating the quality of meals overall. This improved quality, along with farm to school programming, further increases participation and interest in school meals—thus creating the Virtuous Cycle. The results are improved student outcomes, a strengthened local economy, and the elimination of stigma from eating school meals. Learn more about Vermont’s successful School Meals for All campaign here.


Source: Healthy School Meals for All Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Healthy School Meals for All Coalition, in collaboration with Professor Jennifer Gaddis from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, crafted a unique Virtuous Cycle graphic. This iteration sets itself apart from previous models by emphasizing a robust labor dimension. It integrates "workforce development and improved compensation" as foundational elements, highlighting "enhanced capacity to offer high-quality jobs for school nutrition workers" and "elevated culinary skills with the ability to utilize Wisconsin and regionally-grown foods" within its circular framework. By foregrounding labor and support for labor, this approach underlines the essential role that a well-supported workforce plays in sustaining and enhancing the quality and nutritional value of school meals. It asserts that investing in the workforce is pivotal to the success of farm to school programs, ensuring they not only nourish students but also enrich local economies and communities. This topic is explored further in the report Hungry for Good Jobs: The State of the School Nutrition Workforce in Wisconsin.


Source: School Meals for All Connecticut / End Hunger CT

School Meals 4 All Connecticut has yet another variation on the Virtuous Cycle graphic. This graphic does not include the three inputs, or arrows going in. In the original version, the three inputs were School Meals for All, a grant program, and a local food purchasing incentive program. Connecticut does have both a local food incentive and a grant program, and the exclusions of these in the graphic are likely for simplicity. However, we present this graphic here to illustrate that the Virtuous Cycle does not require these additional farm to school programs to continue elevating school meals. This concept is discussed in greater detail below.

Michigan’s What’s on Your Plate? Graphic
Michigan’s 10 Cents a Meal team takes a different approach by using lunch trays in their graphic. Cheyenne Liberti, Farm to Program Consultant at the Michigan Department of Education, developed the “What’s on Your Plate?” graphic, which offers a striking visual portrayal of how different school meal programs impact meal content, costs, and local economies. Through this comparison chart, we can see the differences in meal compositions under different scenarios: Michigan School Meals program, 10 Cents a Meal initiative, both, or neither. Each plate showcases where the ingredients were sourced, shedding light on the vital role of local food purchasing incentive programs in directing school food budgets toward local economies. Lastly, including dollar amounts sharing the cost to students and income to local farmers per school meal powerfully underscores the symbiotic relationship between school meal programs and local purchasing initiatives. While both policies have their distinct benefits, this graphic shows how the two policies result in the greatest state investment in the community to benefit children and local farmers.

Source: 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan's Kids and Farms

National Farm to School Network’s How School Meals for All Can Improve Meal Quality
National Farm to School Network has developed a timeline that explains the immediate, mid-term, and long-term benefits of School Meals for All. This timeline was developed as part of a two-pager that explains how School Meals for All policies can increase local, values-aligned purchasing and improve meal quality, even without additional farm to school policy supports. It explains how the immediate benefits of School Meals for All – eliminated school lunch stigma, increased participation, elimination of unplanned school meal debt – allow for mid-term benefits such as increased and stable revenue, and more staff time unlocked to connect with local producers, scratch cook, train staff, and more. These benefits, over time, can culminate in more robust farm to school programming and have greater community-wide impacts.

Source: The National Farm to School Network

On Quality and Access

These graphics implicitly highlight a crucial point: both policies are integral investments in enhancing school meal programs, representing two sides to the same coin. On one side, School Meals for All policies significantly improve meal access, ensuring that all students have reliable access to nutritious meals. Conversely, farm to school policies, often manifested as local food purchasing incentive programs, bolster meal quality and contribute to broader community impact. Together, these policies form complementary approaches that not only address immediate food access challenges but also foster a culture of wellness and sustainability within our communities.

Incorporating Values

Through our Who’s At the Table? School Meals campaign, the National Farm to School Network emphasizes the significance of "values-aligned" purchasing within child nutrition programs. This approach transcends mere price considerations, delving into factors such as the identity of farm owners, their business and growing practices, and the intrinsic qualities of the ingredients themselves. While specific values may vary across communities, our organization upholds a set of core values encompassing economic justice, environmental sustainability, health impact, racial equity, workers' rights, and animal welfare. Some graphics above explicitly explore these values while others do so more implicitly. When School Meals for All policies are coupled with farm to school initiatives and values-aligned purchases, they can transform the food system as we know it.


We present these graphics not merely as illustrative tools but as powerful vehicles for transformation. This approach advocates for systemic changes within school food systems, recognizing that improvements in one area can catalyze positive outcomes across the entire system. By adopting a holistic perspective, we can more effectively address the complex challenges facing school nutrition programs, ensuring that they are sustainable, equitable, and capable of providing high-quality meals to all students. We urge advocates to draw upon these visuals for inspiration, adapting and innovating upon them to suit their distinct contexts and needs. There are many ways to illustrate the mutual benefits of farm to school, values-aligned purchasing, and School Meals for All. Advocates with diverse perspectives and backgrounds can continue to leverage the ways these elements mutually benefit one another, paving the way for a healthier, more equitable future.

Growing Connections for a Better Farm Bill

NFSN Staff
February 21, 2024

In January, National Farm to School Network’s Policy Director Karen Spangler and Policy Specialist Ryan Betz joined organizations from across the country in Washington, D.C., for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) 2024 Winter Meeting. While Congress considers its overdue Farm Bill reauthorization, grassroots organizations gathered to learn, connect, and strategize on how we can best keep pushing for a Farm Bill that makes our food system more resilient, healthier, and more equitable. 

NFSN's Policy Specialist, Ryan Betz, and Policy Director, Karen Spangler

NFSN’s Farm Bill priorities call for not only direct farm to school support, but also the foundational supports that make these activities possible: diverse local market opportunities for producers, tools to help small producers manage risk, and investment in the policies that build food security and resilience in our food system overall. 

Investments in local food programs and accessibility will strengthen the market channels and producer opportunities for a more robust value chain. Through working in coalition as members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, NFSN can support specific, detailed policy changes to conservation programs, crop insurance, and other complex (but important!) federal agricultural assistance. Additionally, many NFSN Partner organizations work in multiple areas of their local food systems, from farmer assistance to SNAP incentives, so we appreciate the chance for NFSN to add our voice to these priorities across the Farm Bill. 

NSAC members hit the Hill later that week to meet with legislators and demonstrate the powerful grassroots demand for better Farm Bill changes. While it may seem intimidating to make change in a policy as vast as the Farm Bill, proposals known as “marker bills” provide detailed ideas for reforms. Some key changes supported by NSAC and NFSN that impact farm to school stakeholders include:

  • Local Farms and Food Act (S.1205, H.R.2723): This bill would strengthen local infrastructure and market opportunities for producers while increasing healthy food access. The viability of local producers, food hubs, and supply chains directly supports farm to school and farm to ECE. 
  • Supporting Urban and Innovative Farming Act (S.2591, H.R. 5915): This bill would increase federal support for urban farmers, improve service delivery for urban farmers, and increase funding for the USDA’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. 
  • Strengthening Local Processing Act (S.354, H.R. 945): This bill would increase support for small meat and poultry processing plants in the US, in an effort to help farmers and ranchers access local markets and provide consumers, including school food purchasers, with more options for locally-sourced meat. 
  • Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program Improvement Act (S.2598): This bill would expand crop insurance options for diversified producers (those growing/raising more than one kind of product) and specialty crops (such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts). These types of producers, who are more likely to be small or beginning businesses, are vital for farm to school markets and education opportunities. 
  • EFFECTIVE Food Procurement Act (S.3390, H.R.6569): This bill would direct USDA to better prioritize values in its own procurement and would establish a pilot to dedicate a portion of USDA purchasing to values-based criteria. 

For more comprehensive information on these and other marker bills, you can visit NSAC’s blog

While House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders wrestle with negotiations in Washington, it’s an extremely important time for your legislators to hear from you about why these kinds of specific policy changes are important to your community. The timeline for each committee to unveil their respective drafts (the “Chairman’s Mark”) and clear all the hurdles to final passage is still uncertain, so we will need advocates who care about these issues to remain engaged and persistent throughout this process!   

National Farm to School Network Announces Nationwide Cohort of Farm to School Coordinators and School Districts

NFSN Staff
February 5, 2024

National Farm to School Network launches a new project, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and Life Time Foundation, to enhance the well-being of children, fortify family-run farms, and foster thriving communities.

National Farm to School Network is excited to announce the first cohorts for the Farm to School Coordinators Project. Last fall, National Farm to School Network announced the launch of this new project, made possible by the support from USDA and Life Time Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit created by Life Time Inc. (NYSE: LTH), with a mission to inspire Healthy People, a Healthy Planet, and a Healthy Way of Life. 

National Farm to School Network’s goal with this project is to increase the number of dedicated farm to school coordinator positions in school districts across the country—which will result in expanded capacity for locally sourced food items and scratch cooking in schools. This project will also help boost the incorporation of hands-on nutrition education in classroom curriculum and raise participation in farm and garden-based agricultural education activities. 

National Farm to School Network is grateful for the support of Life Time Foundation for this project. This partnership is one way in which Life Time Foundation addresses the elimination of ultra-processed foods as per the Ingredient Guide for Better School Food Purchasing. By promoting the use of locally sourced ingredients in schools, it helps reduce the amount of unnecessary ingredients that are commonly found in highly processed school meals. In line with this, a key finding from the Sapien Labs Consumption of ultra-processed food and mental wellbeing outcomes October 2023 report was, “Mental wellbeing decreases sharply with higher frequency of ultra-processed food consumption.”  

“We are delighted to get started on this work to grow capacity for school district communities to participate in farm to school,” said Sunny Baker, Senior Director of Programs and Policy at National Farm to School Network. “The Life Time Foundation is a wonderful partner for this work and we’re grateful for their support for this generative work.”  

This project includes two groups, one of which is a Community of Practice for current farm to school coordinators. Representing school districts of various sizes from across the country, the following cohort members will come together to share best practices, problem solve, and develop resources that can help others in similar roles succeed: 

  • Allison Pfaff Harris, REAP Food Group, WI 
  • Brianna Jackson, Chicopee Public Schools, MA 
  • Dory Cooper, Wylde Center, GA  
  • Janelle Manzano, San Diego Unified School District, CA  
  • Jennifer Lynn Lewis, East Jordan Public Schools, MI 
  • Kirsten Weigle, Minneapolis Public Schools, MN
  • Maryssa Wilson, Sidney Central School District, NY
  • Rebecca Rodriguez, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, OH 

Likewise, we are also thrilled to announce the School District Working Group, which will convene with the intent to build the case to create a farm to school coordinator role in their school district as well as others across the country: 

  • Amanda Warren, Staunton City Schools, VA
  • Cedra Milton, Jackson Public Schools, MS
  • Emily Becker, Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. (RurAL CAP), AK
  • Erica Biagetti, Cheshire Public Schools, CT
  • Lynne Short, Willamina School District, OR
  • Margaret Zelenka, West New York School District, NJ
  • Monica Fleisher, Portland Public Schools, OR
  • Nicole Chandler, Little Rock School District, AR
  • Rhonda L. Barlow, Savannah-Chatham County Public School System, GA
  • Samantha Goyret, Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network, TN

The impact of this project will be far-reaching—collectively, the Community of Practice and Working Group cohort members represent 21 school districts and 433,950 students.

Together, National Farm to School Network and Life Time Foundation envision a future where fresh, locally sourced produce becomes a staple in school cafeterias nationwide, fostering better physical health and deeper connection between communities and their local food systems. By focusing on locally grown food, it allows communities to engage in sustainable food systems that not only support health but also mitigate environmental harm. This partnership underscores a shared commitment to improving the overall well-being of students and transforming the landscape of school nutrition, addressing not only the immediate health needs of students but also providing the foundation for healthy lifelong habits and environmental conservation.  

"We want all children to live healthier, happier lives and that starts with the food they eat," said Megan Flynn, MPH, RD Life Time Foundation Nutrition Program Manager. "That's why we are proud to collaborate with National Farm to School Network to support all school food professionals in their efforts to eliminate ultra-processed foods and educate students on the importance of local, fresh foods for their health and wellbeing." 

About Life Time Foundation 

Life Time Foundation, a 501c(3) nonprofit created by Life Time, Inc. is dedicated to inspiring Healthy People, a Healthy Planet, and a Healthy Way of Life. Through its work, the Foundation supports schools in their efforts to serve healthy, nutritious meals to students; physical movement programs and events that get children active and healthy; and initiatives that promote a healthy planet, including programs supporting forestation and conservation. For more information, visit www.ltfoundation.org

About National Farm to School Network 
The National Farm to School Network is an information, advocacy and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing, school gardens and food and agriculture education into schools and early care and education settings. The National Farm to School Network provides vision, leadership and support at the state, regional and national levels to connect and expand the farm to school movement, which has grown from a handful of schools in the late 1990s to approximately 67,300 schools in all 50 states as of 2019. Our network includes partner organizations in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. Territories, thousands of farm to school supporters, a national advisory board and staff. Learn more at farmtoschool.org

Going Beyond the Plate with Farm to School

NFSN Staff
January 19, 2024

Guest blog by Marcus Glenn, Houston Independent School District

I am Marcus Glenn, an agriculture educator with Houston Independent School District’s (ISD) Nutrition Services—Food and Agriculture Literacy Department (FAL), where I lead an interdisciplinary food literacy program that increases students' agriculture, nutrition, and culinary literacy. As a current member of the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) Racial Equity Learning Lab Cohort, I have had the privilege of sharing space with others involved in various aspects of farm to school. Together, we engage in discussions about issues, ideas, and stories within the movement. Now, I want to share the story of Houston ISD’s Nutrition Services, and how we go beyond the plate to help students and families develop more than a consumer relationship with their food. 

The thing I love and am also vexed by with farm to school is that there is no ideal model. This allows for a lot of creativity by program designers, but also leaves for a lack of guidance from state and federal partners. Fortunately, there are organizations out there like USDA Food & Nutrition Service, NFSN, Extension, the Whole Kids Foundation, School Garden Support Organization, the Junior Master Gardener program, Farm Bureau, and others that provide great resources and support for farm to school education.

Farm to school at Houston ISD currently includes two unique programs that help students increase their nutrition and agriculture literacy. We administer the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program at 85 schools, serving a fresh fruit or vegetable tasting to approximately 45,000 students. This serving is also paired with nutrition education to encourage students to eat the fruits and vegetables when they see them in the National School Lunch Program. 

Additionally, our Get Growing Houston program is an interdisciplinary food literacy program that is rooted in agriculture and nutrition education, and we add culinary education to make it fun (who wants to learn about food without eating it?!). Get Growing Houston has grown over the past four years from a blank 6.5-acre plot and a program at an elementary, middle and high school, to where we currently serve 110 out of the 274 schools in our district. This program provides professional development and resources such as seeds, soil, beds, and curriculum for teachers. We also host field trips to our Food and Agriculture Literacy Center at Mykawa Farm, where last year we engaged 1,572 students in farm to school education and harvested 1,500 pounds of produce.   

While we have had some great growth in the past two years, I am excited about the next few years to incorporate lessons learned from running the program and collaborating with our partners to make us better. I know that without our federal, state, and private philanthropic partners, we would not be where we are today. Aside from USDA-Food and Nutrition Service and Texas Department of Agriculture as our regulating partners, some of our other partners are USDA-Texas Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the Whole Kids Foundation, the Mission Continues and the Junior Master Gardener Program from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, and Texas Farm Bureau. 

These five entities have seen the value of the work we do and have supported us tremendously. For example, the Whole Kids Foundation provided us with private philanthropic dollars to lay the foundation of our farm—without their initial investment, we would not be where we currently are. We have also had the opportunity to develop a long-term conservation plan for the farm with support from Texas-NRCS and to serve as a training location for Urban Conservationists, who also awarded a Conservation Innovation Grant to allow us to install an ADA pathway at our farm to make it more accessible for students and community members with disabilities. 

For several years, The Mission Continues has provided funding and volunteers for different projects that we needed at the farm: covered teaching pavilion, shade sails, raised beds, benches, shed, and compost bays. We also had the honor of serving as a national training site for graduates of one of their community service leadership programs. 

Another way we have improved our farm to school programming was by identifying a need for and developing a gardening curriculum. In a district survey about garden programs, over 100 schools responded saying they were interested in gardening but needed help with identifying curriculum and other resources to help them have a robust garden education program. With this data, we went to our friends at Junior Master Gardener and we worked to standardize the program across the district for early childhood and elementary schools. Currently, we are working with Texas A&M’s Department of Agriculture, Leadership, Education and Communications to enhance middle school focused garden-based education. 

Lastly, we have been able to develop a wonderful relationship with the Texas Farm Bureau and utilize the “Food Dollar” to show students where in the food chain their money goes. This partnership has also allowed us to provide teachers with more access to resources and opportunities to enhance the work they are doing to educate students about food, agriculture, and natural resource careers. 

This has been an overview of the efforts of Houston ISD’s Nutrition Services to go beyond the plate and ensure that students and families develop more than a consumer relationship with their food. The key takeaway is that our program is gaining traction not only because of what we as a department have done on our own, but because of the partnerships and relationships we have cultivated to help our kids eat better food, connect to the food they eat, and understand how it got to them. To those currently involved in farm to school, I encourage all of us to push ourselves to go beyond the status quo to continue growing and advancing the movement.