Look past the headlines: kids do like their fruits & vegetables

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Erin McGuire, Policy Director

When I was a kid, I hated broccoli. I can sympathize with picky eaters, but I was also a kid who grew up on a farm. I was fortunate to see broccoli grow from a tiny seed into beautiful florets and carrots turn from leggy green stems to vibrant orange roots. It was those experiences that helped me learn to love vegetables. With time and repeated experiences in the garden, by age ten I was telling my chicken nuggets to move over for a mound of veggies.

Recent headlines have painted a picture of students who haven’t yet learned to love the fruits and vegetables served to them at lunchtime - but that’s not what the larger body of data shows. In 2014, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the implementation of the new school meal standards increased vegetable consumption by 16 percent. And that increase is making a difference. A recent study in Arkansas found that when kids were offered fresh fruits and vegetables at school, childhood obesity rates dropped by 3 percent. One approach to helping kids learning to like these new healthy options is farm to school. A report from Vermont FEED found that most food service directors in Vermont saw participation in school lunch go up after farm to school programs were started in their schools.

It’s because of on the ground successes like these that 86 percent of Americans support today’s school nutrition standards, and 88 percent support increasing government funding for farm to school programs. Farm to school activities like taste tests, school gardens, and farm visits are helping teach kids to embrace new options in the cafeteria. This common sense, hands-on approach to learning about food is what changed my mind about broccoli, and it’s an approach 23.5 million kids have access to with farm to school across the country.

These activities are the training wheels that help kids learn to try and to like news foods. Simply put, farm to school makes the National School Lunch Program stronger by bringing more students into the lunch line and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. Take these examples:

  • Students at Lincoln Middle School in Portland, Maine, used their greenhouse to learn about growing mixed salad greens, and afterward asked the food service staff to include it in the daily lunch. Now students and staff work together to harvest and serve the mix every week.
  • At Kona Pacific Public Charter School in Hawaii, the more time kids spend on their 22-acre farm, the less plate waste there is in the cafeteria and school meal participation rates have increased
  • Just last week, Burke County, Georgia, students created their own recipes using local foods. From hundreds of submissions, the finalists had their recipes prepared in the cafeteria kitchen with Rep. Rick Allen as a taste tester of the Georgia Peach Ambrosia. The winning recipe is going on the Burke County Schools cafeteria menu.

We are 17 days out from the Senate Agriculture Committee debating the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization. Do not let the negative headlines be the story that shapes this debate. Now is the time to share success stories of the great farm to school and healthy meal initiatives happening your local community. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, invite your representative to lunch at your child’s school, or pick-up the phone and call your federal representative.

Congress has a long to-do list this fall. But now, more than ever, we need our legislators to know that healthier school meals are working, and that it's time to strengthen programs like farm to school that show results.

Growing farm to school in Mississippi

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Sunny Young, Mississippi Farm to School Network and NFSN Mississippi State Co-Lead

In April of 2014, Dorothy Grady-Scarborough and I met at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Austin, Texas, to talk about a Mississippi Farm to School Network. Between her work with Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture (MEGA) and relationships with farmers across the state, and my school food reform experience and work with Good Food for Oxford Schools, we felt a partnership would lead to bigger and better things than working alone.

I'm proud to say that one year later, our partnership is thriving. We are working together as co-State Leads for the National Farm to School Network and, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, are making our state farm to school network dreams a reality through Seed Change, an initiative by the National Farm to School Network to rapidly scale up farm to school at the state level and strengthen partnerships for long-term sustainability.

The intent of the Mississippi Farm to School Network is to build on all of the wonderful farm to school initiatives that have existed for years in Mississippi while increasing statewide efforts to connect practitioners and train new leaders. It's to learn from all the experience of programs and individuals around the state and strengthen partnerships to move forward together. It's to utilize our strengths to set new farm to school activities in motion and, with the support of our state and national farm to school networks, and evaluate our work so it is stronger each year.

So what will the Mississippi Farm to School Network mean for Mississippi schools and farmers? We have outlined a number of goals and priorities for the upcoming three years of funding, including:

Developing the Network: The network will promote farm to school activities as well as bring together a diverse audience of individual stakeholders and organizations from across the state. Within three years, the state network hopes to engage more than 500 active members and an Advisory Board to help guide the future of farm to school in Mississippi.  

Request an Expert: A database of experts in farm to school related fields will be developed to provide dedicated support to schools facing questions or barriers. These experts will be deployed to assist schools in starting new activities or expanding existing programs.

Outreach and Networking Events: From local mixers and cafeteria taste tests to the statewide Mississippi Farm to Cafeteria Conference, the Mississippi Farm to School Network will build awareness of and support for farm to school activities with parents, farmers, administrators and students across the state. Trainings and technical assistance will be provided to practitioners on the ground to help expand the number of farm to school sites in Mississippi.

Website and Resources: A new Mississippi farm to school website will serve as an online portal for information and resources on farm to school in Mississippi. This will include new how-to guides, a statewide farm to school mapping project, promotional materials for students, event information and opportunities for schools to engage students and the community with local food.

Be sure to sign up for our monthly Mississippi Farm to School Network e-newsletter to stay in the loop with all these new projects.

Dorothy and I are incredibly grateful for this opportunity to help expand the practice of farm to school throughout the state. We are thrilled to work with partners who have been practicing farm to school since before it had a name. These existing and past projects are our inspiration for what can be, and we look forward to working together to grow. So cheers to farm to school! We look forward to growing together.

New state laws boost farm to school in Louisiana

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

On August 1, 2015, two Louisiana bills became laws that support and strengthen farm to school efforts across the state. We interviewed our Louisiana State Lead, Katie Mularz, to learn how these policies will help bring Louisiana kids fresh, local food, and why grassroots advocacy is important for helping farm to school grow.

Tell us about these bills, and how they relate to farm to school in Louisiana.
The first is Senate Bill 184 – the “Small Purchase Threshold” bill. Up until now, any food purchase a school made larger than $30,000 was subject to a complicated bidding process, known as a “formal bid.” This made it difficult for schools to get seasonal and local foods because the process is often challenging for smaller-scale, local farmers. The passage of SB 184 increased the small purchase threshold to meet the federal standard of $150,000, enabling schools to work more closely with small-scale farmers to serve local food to Louisiana children.

The second is House Bill 761 – the “Urban Ag Incentive Zone” bill. This bill creates urban agriculture incentive areas and reduces taxes on land used for urban farming. It greatly reduces expenses associated with acquiring urban agricultural land, and in turn encourages Louisianans to grow more local food. This is great for schools because it means there will be even more local producers to buy from.

What did farm to school policy in Louisiana look like before the passage of these bills?
Although these are the first state laws supporting farm to school efforts, in 2014 the Louisiana legislature unanimously passed a resolution to convene an interagency task force to study how best to implement farm to school in Louisiana. It was an important accomplishment and first step in putting farm to school on the map, and it gave us the momentum to further drive farm to school policy in our state.

What role did partnerships play in passing these bills?
Senator Francis Thompson was a crucial champion of SB 184, the Small Purchase Threshold bill. He is committed to Louisiana schools, and as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he is committed to supporting farmers. For him, working on farm to school was a natural fit. Senator Thompson's office worked to stay informed about local farm to school activities, and they shared that work with his constituents and fellow Senators.

We also had a lot of allies and partners from organizations across the state, including more than 130 schools and organizations that are part of our Louisiana Farm to School Alliance. We had monthly calls to update our allies on the progress of the bills, and they helped spread our message that farm to school is a win for kids and farmers through a sign-on letter. I really think these relationships are what made the bills successful.

Why is state-level policy important for farm to school?
The farm to school movement is aching to grow – on the school end and on the farmer end. Grassroots advocacy is an opportunity for the public to express its desire to see programs like farm to school become institutionalized in state policy. Our ability to pull together and help these bills pass has given our state movement energy, momentum and a stronger voice for helping move this work forward to benefit kids, farmers and communities.

What’s next for farm to school in Louisiana?
We’re excited to ride this wave of momentum to continue building farm to school and our Louisiana Farm to School Alliance. We had 49 applications for the National Farm to School Network Seed Change mini grants, and although we could only fund 32, it’s encouraging to know that people want more farm to school programming in our state. We’re looking forward to building our capacity and seeing these two new laws bring more local food to students across Louisiana.

Fertile ground for farm to preschool

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Preschool Associate

Lacy Stephens is the National Farm to School Network’s new Farm to Preschool Associate. Joining the team from Bozeman, Mont., Lacy will help us continue to elevate preschool and early child care needs as a permanent and essential component of the wider farm to school movement.

If you’ve ever watched a young child bite into a sun-ripened strawberry or a toddler waddle through a pumpkin patch, then you know farm to preschool activities are a natural fit for zero to five-year-olds. Thankfully, the success of farm to school programs in K-12 schools across the nation has set the stage for expansion of the movement to early childhood audiences. While many states have some form of farm to preschool, there is still immense opportunity to reach more children with these impactful initiatives. Here are a few reasons why farm to preschool is a great fit for our littlest eaters:

Promotes lifelong healthy eating
In the years before kindergarten, children develop taste preferences and eating habits that will impact their health for a lifetime. Repeated exposure to healthy foods through taste testing, seasonal foods at lunchtime, and garden nibbles encourages adventurous eating and a diverse diet. Variety is vital to ensuring children get the wide-range of nutrients their growing bodies need, and promotes a lifelong habit of healthy food choices.

Capitalizes on curiosity
Farm to preschool activities integrate seamlessly with the learning styles of young children. Gardening capitalizes on children’s natural curiosity and encourages them to engage all of their senses. Children gain knowledge about the natural environment and a connection to where their food comes from by exploring in garden beds. And, as children grow older and prepare for kindergarten, the garden is a perfect place to master important skills like counting, identifying colors and practicing the alphabet.

Benefits beyond the child
The benefits of farm to preschool activities in early care and education settings reach far beyond the child. A child’s enthusiasm for harvesting fresh vegetables and tasting new foods can be a motivating factor for parents to make changes in the foods they serve to their families. Many farm to preschool programs even offer special farm to table family events or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) memberships for families to ensure the health and education benefits of farm to preschool are continued at home. Preschool programs have the potential to develop strong connections to small local farmers, as well. Class field trips, using produce in meals and snacks and promoting the farmer’s goods to families creates new marketing opportunities for growers. Farm to preschool is truly a win for kids, families, farmers and communities.

Now is the time to continue growing farm to preschool and capitalize on the momentum of the movement. This year, the role of farm to preschool in promoting child health has been at the forefront of child nutrition policy. In March, the USDA released a memorandum highlighting the use of local foods in Child and Adult Care Food Program. Additional support for farm to preschool has also been asked for in the Farm to School Act of 2015. If the policy ideas and expanded funding proposed in this bill are included in the final reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, all early care and education programs will benefit from access to the USDA Farm to School Grant program.

State level farm to preschool policy has also been expanding. In Washington, D.C., the passage of the D.C. Healthy Tots Act in 2014 set an important precedent for farm to preschool legislation. This comprehensive bill has a strong emphasis on farm to preschool activities, including all three core elements of farm to school: local procurement, gardens and education. Now is the time to encourage more states and communities to adopt similar polices that will create greater access to farm to preschool for all young learners.

Many farm to preschool leaders have spent years developing valuable resources and exemplary programs. Moving forward, our challenge is to reach more early care educators with the farm to preschool message and ensure that all programs – from the smallest home care providers to the largest Head Start centers – have the opportunity to be a part of this movement. The more children we reach with farm to preschool, the healthier our next generation will be.

Learn more about farm to preschool here and access farm to preschool tips and tools in our resource library by searching under the Preschool / Early Care setting.