House committee passes CNR amidst advocate and lawmaker concerns

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Natalie Talis, Policy Associate

Yesterday, the House Education and Workforce Committee approved H.R. 5003, the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, marking another step forward in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) process, but potentially a step backward for our nation’s children. The final vote, after 31 proposed amendments and several hours of debate, came down primarily on party lines with 20 for and 14 against.

The markup was a contentious meeting, with members on both sides of the aisle expressing concern over the bill. On one side, Democrats proposed amendments to preserve the nutrition gains of the latest version of CNR, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. On the other, Republicans proposed amendments to further limit the federal government’s involvement in school meals.  While there are considerable issues with the bill’s potential impact on the quality and access to school meals, one of the very few bright spots of bipartisanship was farm to school.

Several members of Congress mentioned their support of the bill’s farm to school provisions in their opening remarks, including Reps. Stefanik (R-NY), Fudge (D-OH) and Curbelo (R-FL). The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 uses much of the language from the Farm to School Act of 2015 marker bill and includes an increase from $5 to $10 million annually in funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program.

Despite this farm to school victory, the National Farm to School Network urges the House to work toward a different CNR bill with a bipartisan consensus, much like the Senate Agriculture version. One of our many concerns with the House bill involves changes to the Community Eligibility Program (CEP). By increasing the qualifying threshold for this program, Congress would reduce access to school meals while increasing paperwork and the administrative burden on school nutrition professionals. An analysis of the bill from The PEW Charitable Trusts provides more details on potential outcomes from the bill here.

During the amendment portion of the markup, 6 proposed amendments earned enough votes to pass. They include:

  • An independent study to examine external/private funding opportunities for school meals. Introduced by Rep. Allen (R-GA)
  • Eliminating the cultural foods exemption for the nutrition standards. Introduced by Rep. Scott (D-VA)
  • Instructing the USDA to provide guidance on streamlining compliance paperwork for the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Introduced by Rep. Stefanik (R-NY)
  • Including parents, pediatricians and dietitians to the list of stakeholders involved in a three year nutrition standard review. Introduced by Rep. Polis (D-CO)
  • Instructing the USDA to consider milk purchasing options for schools to increase dairy consumption. Introduced by Rep. Courtney (D-CT)
  • Authorization to use other forms of electronic benefit transfer in the Summer EBT Pilot. Introduced by Rep. Davis (D-CA)

Many of the failed amendments were Democratic attempts to undo the bill’s block grant pilot, increased threshold for the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) and relaxed nutrition standards.

Although the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 has passed through committee, it is still uncertain if the controversial bill will make it to the full floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate is still waiting on a revised Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score to ensure budget neutrality before coming to a vote.

With the legislative calendar winding down for this year, we remain cautiously optimistic that CNR will move forward with the necessary changes to continue building on previous successes and ensure healthy meals for every child. To stay up to date on CNR, sign up for the National Farm to School Network newsletter and follow us on social media.

CACFP lifts up local

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

In April, the United Stated Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (USDA FNS) released the much anticipated Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) meal pattern final rule and CACFP best practice recommendations. The National Farm to School Network, along with kids, farmers and communities, has reason to applaud these updates. The final rule and best practice recommendations create great opportunity to promote farm to school activities in CACFP programs and open the door for even more of the 3.3 million children served by CACFP to experience the benefits of farm to early care and education.  

The new meal pattern, which is the first revision since the start of the program in 1968, aims to improve the overall nutritional quality of CACFP meals and snacks and ensure that the standards more closely align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In the final rule, FNS highlights the benefits and growing interest in utilizing local foods in CACFP programs:

Local foods: Local foods can play an important role in creating and promoting a healthy environment. A growing body of research demonstrates several positive impacts of serving local foods and providing food education through CNPs, including increased participation and engagement in meal programs; consumption of healthier options, such as whole foods; and support of local economies.

Implementation of new CACFP meal pattern changes, such as additional fruit and vegetable variety requirements, increased whole grains and reduced sugar in snacks and beverages, can all be supported with farm to early care and education activities. By using local foods, gardening experiences, and food and nutrition education, young children learn to accept and enjoy the variety of healthy foods included in the meal pattern. To read more about the role of farm to early care and education in supporting success in CACFP, see our recent blog, Celebrating Good Nutrition for Our Littlest Eaters.

In addition to the final rule, the USDA will release a policy guidance document detailing CACFP best practice strategies that further support a healthy start for our youngest eaters and help create lifelong healthy habits. The policy guidance, to be released this summer, will include using seasonal and local foods in meals along with nutrition education.

In the meantime, get started on the CACFP best practice of serving local food and other farm to early care and education activities with these National Farm to School Network resources:

The new FNS rules emphasize what we continue to see in the field: CACFP and farm to early care and education are key to building the next generation of healthy eaters.    

Congress is Red, Blue and Green!

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Amy Woehling, Emerson Hunger Fellow

Photo credit: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

With farm to school, advocacy isn’t just letters and phone calls – it's also about getting policymakers out to the farm! In April, the National Farm to School Network teamed-up with DC Central Kitchen, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, DC Greens and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to welcome congressional staff to K Street Farm in Washington, D.C. and witness farm to school in action. When policymakers join the fun happening in their own backyard, it provides firsthand experience with farm to school’s critical role in developing young, healthy eaters. From teachers to students, food processors to farmers, gardeners to congressmen, advocacy opportunities share the intricate stories of farm to school and how this powerful tool can be used to create healthy, lifelong habits.

Our tour at K Street Farm started with congressional staff learning about D.C.’s local farm to school advocates and the tremendous work they do year round to provide local, nutritious meals to all students across the city. Then, guests explored the garden (where students were expertly planting kale) before getting their very own taste of farm to school: Fresh Feature Fridays. DC Central Kitchen hosts Fresh Feature Fridays at schools around the city where students are able to try a local vegetable cooked three different ways and then vote on their favorite. The garden tour participants had three local squash dishes before heading to the polls. In a show of bipartisanship, the congressional staffers came together to pick curried squash as their Fresh Feature Favorite!

Photo credit: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Hosting a farm to school tour is a great example of advocacy that demonstrates just how important policies that support farm to school are for cultivating hands-on nutrition education. Our tour specifically showcased the potential impacts of the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR). It is one thing to say how important the USDA Farm to School Grant Program is to schools across the country. It is another to meet the kids who benefit from garden education and to taste fresh, locally sourced school meals.

CNR has recently seen movement from the House Education and Workforce Committee, which introduced its draft CNR bill on April 20, 2016. While the House CNR bill includes big wins for farm to school, we do have a number of concerns regarding student access to healthy, nutritious meals year round. Check out this update from our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition for more details.

Try your own advocacy event and set up a farm to school tour day for policymakers in your community! Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Choose a farm to school activity that you’re most excited about in your community - is it the school garden? Local food taste tests? Harvest of the Month?

  • Strategize how you could share this excitement with your policymakers - e.g. invite policy makers to a cooking demonstration or a harvest celebration.
  • Form a team, including community partners and other key stakeholders, to help create an agenda for the event.
  • Find contact information for the policymakers and legislative staff you’d like to invite. Consider policymakers at all levels, from US Senators and Representatives to your governor, mayor or city council members.

  • Send invitations – don’t forget to invite local media, too.

  • Celebrate your advocacy event!

  • Follow-up with all participants and make sure to send a thank you. Include a memento from the day (like a picture) to remind your policymakers what farm to school success looks like.  

Advocacy events like these bring everyone to the table (or garden!) and exemplify the mission of farm to school: empowering children and their families to make informed food choices while strengthening the local economy and contributing to vibrant communities. Check out our Advocacy Fact Sheet for more ideas of how to advocate for farm to school in your community. Keep an eye out this summer for our new advocacy toolkit that will provide further details on hosting your own Garden Tour Day and other efforts that you make to promote farm to school in your community.

Photo credit: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Farm to school in rural Louisiana restores local food connections

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Nicole Mabry, Louisiana Farm to School Alliance

Rory Gresham leads a tour of the Richland Parish School Board hydroponic growing system.
(Photo credit: Jason Van Haverbeke)

In the transnational push for more sustainable local food systems, rural communities face unique challenges that city-centric conversations can fail to capture. Across Louisiana, rural parishes are finding innovative, collaborative ways to revitalize local food economies that can often feel disinvested from the community. Leading this movement to stimulate local food systems in rural Louisiana are schools.

With support from Seed Change, a National Farm to School Network initiative aimed at expanding farm to school activities at the state and community levels, and the Louisiana Farm to School Alliance, a statewide network of organizations working in food, farming, nutrition and education, schools across the state are bringing fresh, healthy food into cafeterias and increasing food and agricultural literacy in the classroom.

A look at three different rural Seed Change Louisiana sites offers a glimpse into how dedicated educators, administrators and growers are finding fresh ways to restore connection and inspire growth through school food.

Richland Parish School Board

Since the beginning of 2016, Richland Parish School Board’s greenhouse program has supplied their Food Service Department with more than 4,200 heads of lettuce to be served in the district’s twelve schools. This is particularly impressive considering the greenhouse is only 20x48 feet – or roughly the size of two adjacent school buses. Serving as a Seed Change Demonstration Site in northeast Louisiana, Richland Parish School Board invested its Seed Change grant funding into building the greenhouse along with the high-efficiency hydroponic growing system it houses. Rory Gresham, greenhouse manager for Richland Parish School Food Service, has noticed a considerable increase in the amount of greens the students are eating. “It’s amazing how many students come up and tell me that they didn’t know lettuce had a taste,” he says. Far beyond the cafeteria, Richland’s hydroponic greenhouse is also having an impact across the region. Gresham regularly hosts visitors from throughout the south who are eager to replicate this innovative system in their own school districts and communities. With a professional internship program in partnership with the local university slated to begin next year, Richland may well have a hand in producing a new crop of Louisiana farmers along with its lettuce and tomatoes.

Northwest High School, Opelousas
Cody Manuel, agriculture teacher at Northwest High School and Seed Change Louisiana mini-grantee, often views his classes as a hands-on course in communication skills. Inspired by a Seed Change training held at the Richland Parish School Board Demonstration Site, Manuel hopes to expand his existing garden based curriculum and small-scale hydroponic growing system where he says students are learning meaningful career skills such as, “How to accept constructive criticism, how to work together, how to communicate.” Manuel adds that he’s noticed a niche market emerging for high quality, locally grown crops, and students in his classes are also taking note. Manuel hopes Northwest’s farm to school program will support students’ entry into sustainable farming. “Those that enjoy growing things and see there’s money to be made in it, they’ll pursue it. I think it’s going that way, it’s not just a trend.”

LaSalle Parish School Board

Kelly Thompson, Child Nutrition Supervisor at LaSalle Parish Schools and lifelong gardener, has always been attracted to the idea of incorporating gardening into classroom curriculum. “What a great way to teach students leadership, responsibility and to help them develop a sense of place about our community,” she says. After being selected as a Seed Change Louisiana mini-grantee, Thompson was able to turn her vision into reality. Equipped with training and funding, raised bed gardens have been installed at all four of LaSalle Parish’s elementary schools – and the impacts have been noticeable. “Students having so much fun and smiling. Even their behavior has changed, with a new peace and calmness.” The gardens are also gaining interest and support from many in the community. Some of the community’s most knowledgeable local gardeners now volunteer and are helping to keep the gardens thriving. Through these school-community partnerships, LaSalle Parish is restoring the community’s intergenerational knowledge of the land and teaching the parish’s littlest learners how to grow.
(Photo credit: LaSalle Parish School Board)

Funding and support provided by Seed Change has sparked an upwelling of new opportunities for farm to school projects across the region. Katie Mularz, Executive Director for the Louisiana Farm to School Alliance and Seed Change State Coordinator said, “Even modest farm to school funding supports schools to be innovative agents of change—leading the way to healthier, more sustainable systems while addressing community needs and inspiring youth to see a brighter future.”

Learn more about the National Farm to School Network’s Seed Change initiative and how we’re growing farm to school state by state here.

Seed Change in Kentucky, Louisiana and Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Walmart Foundation, which shares the National Farm to School Network’s commitment to improving child and community healthy through innovative partnerships.