We agree: child nutrition programs should be about making kids healthier

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Donna Martin, EdS, RDN, LD, SNS, FAND, School Nutrition Program Director, Burke County Board of Education and Incoming President-Elect of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Erin McGuire, Policy Director, National Farm to School Network

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.

Census says: farm to school is booming!

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Natalie Talis, Policy Associate

Today, the USDA released new data from its 2015 Farm to School Census and the results are clear: farm to school is booming! Thanks to efforts from teachers, school nutrition professionals, farmers, parents, students and other community members like you, farm to school activities have grown from a handful of schools in the late 1990s to reaching 23.6 million students nationwide.

According to the data, 5,254 school districts - a total of 42,587 schools across all 50 states and Washington D.C. - participate in farm to school activities, including serving local food in the cafeteria, holding taste tests and taking students on field trips to farms and orchards.

During the 2013-2014 school year, these schools purchased $789 million worth of local products from farmers, ranchers, fishermen and other food producers. That is a 105% increase over the $386 million of local food purchased in 2011-2012 and a huge investment in community economic development. Furthermore, 46 percent of school districts reported they will increase their local food purchases in coming school years. While fruits, vegetables and milk currently top the list of foods schools are most likely to buy locally, many indicated that they’d like to buy more plant-based proteins, grains, meats, poultry and eggs from local suppliers.

Forty-four percent of the school districts also reported having at least one edible school garden. In school year 2013-2014, more than 7,101 school gardens gave students daily access to fresh fruits and vegetables, while also helping them learn where food comes from. This is a 196 percent increase over the 2,401 edible school gardens reported in the 2011-2012 school year when the first census was conducted.

Photo Courtesy: USDA Food and Nutrition Service

The benefits of farm to school activities like these are far reaching. Sixty-six percent of school nutrition director respondents reported experiencing one or more of the following:

  • Greater community support for school meals
  • Greater acceptance of school meal standards
  • Lower school meal program costs
  • Increased participation in school meals
  • Reduced food waste

These benefits, in addition to positive economic opportunities for local food producers, explain why farm to school is on pace to continue growing. Of the more than 12,500 school districts that responded to the survey, more than 2,000 indicated they plan to start farm to school activities in the future.

The high interest in these activities confirms why the National Farm to School Network continues its advocacy for supportive policies at the national, state and local levels that will help the farm to school movement grow. To ensure that more school districts feel empowered to start new programs or expand their existing work, we’re advocating for policies like the Farm to School Act of 2015 to be included in the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR). We’re calling on Congress to strengthen and expand the USDA Farm to School Grant Program so more communities have access to farm to school. Show your support for farm to school by adding your name to our petition here.

See how your school district stacks up by visiting the census map, which provides detailed information on all 18,000 surveyed school districts. Want to help farm to school efforts in your community grow? Check out our tips for getting started, or contact your National Farm to School Network State or Regional Lead for local information, resources and opportunities.

Farm to school is a grassroots movement powered by people like you - congratulations for your work in helping farm to school grow! Join us at 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Madison, Wis., this June to continue building momentum and ensure long-term sustainability for local food efforts like these around the county. As this census data shows, together we have the power to affect great change!

Celebrating good nutrition for our littlest eaters

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate

Credit: Taking Root Tennessee

Along with the onset of spring, March brings with it many ways to celebrate good nutrition for our littlest eaters. With warmer days comes opportunity for planting spinach and radish seeds and savoring the first tastes of sweet peas and baby greens. March is also National Nutrition Month, a time devoted to celebrating good nutrition for all, as well as National Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Week, a national campaign aimed at raising awareness about the benefits and importance of the USDA CACFP program.

The CACFP program provides 1.9 billion meals and snacks to over 3.2 million children in child care centers, family child care homes and after-school programs each year. In addition to ensuring access to nutritious food for children in child care settings, the program also aims to support nutrition education and positive eating habits.

In celebration of these important awarness campaigns, we’re recognizing the work of organization like Taking Root Tennessee, which aims to influence a generation of children to be healthy eaters by exposing them to fresh, healthy foods. To do this, Taking Root Tennessee offers gardening opportunities for young children by building gardens and providing tools, technical assistance and curriculum to early care and education providers.

For Joshua Smith, Program Coordinator, and Phillip Hester, Program Director, expanding garden education is a natural extension of the work of Taking Root Tennessee’s parent organization, Our Daily Bread of Tennessee. As a CACFP sponsor, Our Daily Bread facilitates the administration of the CACFP program to over 300 family child care homes, child care centers, at risk afterschool programs, and summer food programs, reaching nearly 10,000 children with healthy meals and snacks each day.

The gardening experience offered by Taking Root Tennessee supports the CACFP aims of contributing to the nutrition knowledge, wellness and healthy growth of young children. As Smith notes, the CACFP meal requirements ensure children are offered fruits and vegetables, while farm to school activities, like gardening and food-related educational opportunities, make it more likely that children will actually eat and enjoy those fruits and vegetables.  

Farm to school activities offered by Taking Root Tennessee not only support the health and wellness of children, but families, early care and education providers and local growers also reap the benefits. One child in the program was so excited about gardening, and his mother so thrilled to see her child eating fresh vegetables, that the family is now in search of a home where they can put in a garden and grow vegetables for the whole family.

Garden trainings offered by Taking Root Tennessee give early care and education providers the opportunity to expand their palates, as well. Never having tasted a bell pepper, one provider was convinced that they would be too spicy for the children in her care. After tasting the sweetness of a ripe red bell pepper at a training, she eagerly began growing them in the garden and offering them at snack time.

As providers taste the distinct flavors of freshly grown produce and see how the children respond, they are requesting more information about how to source more fresh, local products. Smith and Hester happily point them towards farmers’ markets and connect them with local producers, increasing market opportunities for local growers.

As Taking Root Tennessee demonstrates, farm to early care and education and CACFP can be valuable keys to allowing all children the opportunity to grow and eat healthy, local food. To learn more about getting started with farm to school activities in early care and education settings – like gardening, local procurement, and food-based activities to enhance the educational experience – download our Getting Started with Farm to Early Care and Education factsheet. Now is a great time to take actions that will help children celebrate great nutrition all year round!  

The Curriculum of Cuisine

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Bryant Sanders, Development Associate

March is National Nutrition Month, a time to promote nutrition education and bring attention to the importance of making informed food choices. In celebration, we interviewed Maggie Michaels, founder of The Curriculum of Cuisine, in Portland, Ore. to discuss her innovate approach for integrating nutrition education into high school classrooms.

What is The Curriculum of Cuisine?
The Curriculum of Cuisine is a program that works at crossroads of culinary education, standards driven academic rigor, career development and food justice. Our mission is to support rigorous academic learning while delivering essential culinary skills to enhance student success and foster a lifetime of wellness. We provide basic culinary education to students without the expense of a school needing to add an elective class or create a specialized classroom. By providing culinary supplies and a chef, The Curriculum of Cuisine turns classroom spaces into basic kitchens for hands-on learning.

Links between health and academic achievement are unquestionable, so this program addresses the critical community needs of improving both youth wellness and academic achievement by placing culinary skills on par with academic rigor during the school day.

Why is it important that students receive nutrition education in the classroom?
Basic cooking techniques are fundamental to both wellness and food justice, so The Curriculum of Cuisine ensures more youth acquire these skills by teaching them within the context of the academic classes that are required for graduation. In addition to engaging learners and reinforcing academic standards, the culinary skills taught through our program become cornerstones for students to achieve a lifetime of healthy eating habits and personal wellness.

What does the curriculum look like in practice?
There is no “canned” curriculum, so a certified teacher and culinary professional have the opportunity to craft a series of lessons to reflect the unique learning styles, cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic situations of their students.

For example, this spring we’re partnering with a Natural Sciences teacher at Alliance High School-Meek in Portland, Ore. We’re bringing a chef into two of the teacher’s classes for six visits each. Along with learning essential culinary skills, students will be focused on learning about food security issues in low incomes neighborhoods; using permaculture design principles to grow food with maximum benefits to ecosystems and minimal negative impacts to the planet; and exploring career pathways to becoming chefs.

What makes this approach to nutrition education unique?
Our program model – bringing chefs into the classes students are already need to graduate – means we can meet students, teachers, and schools right where they are. This spring we’re working with four different high schools, and it's almost as if there are four different programs being planned. All of them will deliver hands on learning for students, but each is a  unique reflection of  the chef-teacher partnership, the cultural capital of students, and the school. Every initiative of The Curriculum of Cuisine has its own flavor, and that is very cool!

Learn more about The Curriculum of Cuisine through their website, Facebook page and blog. To explore more ideas for integrating nutrition education into classroom curriculum, visit our resource library.