How Schools and Early Care Sites Served as Hubs for Food Access During COVID-19
By Sade Collins, NFSN Program Fellow
The COVID-19 emergency exacerbated inequities and activated new crises for the farming sector and for consumers across the food system. The pandemic led to shifting demands in the food system and prompted the government and communities to respond quickly to provide emergency support for actors across the food system. With food insecurity heightened, operators around the country demonstrated their ability to innovate and develop practices for fulfilling essential needs in communities across the country. Mitigating this crisis came with innovative approaches to supplying communities with fresh, local products through Community Supported Agriculture and emergency food operations. Community food organizations mobilized quickly to support local farmers and communities. In many communities, schools and early care sites became vital access points for local food through emergency food distribution.
As part of the Local Food Systems Response to COVID-19 project funded by USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, National Farm to School Network (NFSN) partnered with Farm to Institution New England and researchers from the University of Kentucky to develop an Innovation Brief: Pre-K and K-12 Schools as Access Points for Local Food to elevate examples from across the country of this innovation. However, we heard so many inspirational examples of schools and early care sites becoming hubs for food access, we could not fit them all into a single brief. Below, you’ll find even more innovation and inspiration from NFSN partners across the country. Thank you to all the organizations who shared their stories with us!
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project-ASAP (Asheville, North Carolina): ASAP launched the Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program to connect local farmers with food pantries/relief sites as well as with child care providers that have continued to operate as essential businesses throughout the pandemic. ASAP raised funds for this program from both corporate foundations and individual donors. ASAP staff acted as “matchmakers,” connecting small farmers in the region and nearby feeding sites, including child care locations. ASAP awarded the feeding sites a monthly budget to be used to order local products on a weekly basis directly from their “matched” producer. Farmers are compensated directly for the products they grow and deliver to these sites.
Project GROWS (Staunton, Virginia and Waynesboro, Virginia): Project GROWS worked closely with Staunton City Schools (SCS), Waynesboro Public Schools (WPS), after school programs, various food pantries and farmers markets to continue to provide local food to families in the Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County community throughout the COVID-19 emergency. Using connections with farmers in the community, Project GROWS was able to help facilitate sales to the schools directly through the Harvest of the Month (HOM) program. Each month a different local farm was featured in virtual HOM videos and Project GROWS facilitated a sale of the featured HOM product to the schools from those farms to create HOM produce samples. According to Project GROWS, participation in the school meal program in their partner districts has actually grown amid the pandemic. With this increase in demand for food, produce sales to schools increased both from the Project GROWS own on-site farm and other local farms. The organization worked also worked with partners to create new pathways for local food to reach families during a time when access is very limited. This included participating in a fresh food box initiative through the local hospital, establishing an online farmers market for producers, creating a fresh food donation program at markets, facilitating a curbside pick up at market, accepting and doubling SNAP/P-EBT, and routinely donating food to food pantries, homeless shelters, and senior centers.
Farm Fresh Rhode Island (Rhode Island): Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Farm Fresh Rhode Island's local foods distribution platform, Market Mobile, connected farms exclusively to wholesale accounts such as restaurants, small grocers, Co-ops, food service management companies, and schools. When restaurants closed dine-in services, Market Mobile leveraged this existing infrastructure to launch direct to consumer food distribution, both to provide local food to residential communities, and to mitigate supply chain disruptions for farmers. Rhode Island worked with USDA Food Nutrition Services to obtain clearance to accept SNAP-EBT and to deliver food to SNAP recipients. Farm Fresh Rhode Island also developed a guide for farmers on how to obtain an FNS number and EBT card reader to accept SNAP sales directly.
REAP Food Group (Madison, WI): For over 10 years, REAP Food Group, in partnership with Madison Metropolitan School Districts (MMSD) Food and Nutrition, has processed local fruits and vegetables for elementary schools enrolled in the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) as part of the MMSD Farm to School Project, which focuses on increasing local food accessibility for preK-12 students. To ensure continued access to FFVP to all students, MMSD began distributing unprocessed items to FFVP schools in late September. School staff prepared and bagged local fresh fruit and vegetable snack items to be distributed for students learning at home. MMSD Food and Nutrition altered their entire service model to cater to the mostly virtual model for the district, packing over 50,000 meals weekly for a district with over 50% of 28,000 students receiving free or reduced lunch. REAP worked closely with MMSD to create a modified snack schedule that allowed for the local, seasonal component of the program to really stand out and gave REAP a chance to continue the program despite also having reduced capacity to safely receive and pack food.
Fairfax Public Schools (Fairfax County, Virginia): Fairfax Public Schools (FPS) started serving meals to families at the start of the pandemic. USDA waivers allowed breakfast and lunch meals to be served to children throughout the summer through the Summer Food Service Food Program and continued during the school year. CACFP meals and snacks waiver has helped provide meals to families. Additionally, the district continued the Food for Education Program (FFEP), which creates an additional opportunity to offer local foods to families. Funding from the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) COVID Relief Grant allowed for the continuation of FFEP through the summer by offering supplemental fruit at four school feeding sites. FPS distributed over 4,000 pieces of fruit to children through Summer 2020. NFSN COVID relief funding also provided support for Fairfax tp provide “Grow at Home” seed growing kits with printed activity cards, education and enrichment information for distribution at 65 meal sites. FPS hopes to expand the program through another grant in the spring.
From these examples, it is clear that many early care and education sites and schools involved in farm to school and farm to ECE leveraged their existing partnerships, resources, and infrastructure to shift their priorities and address the critical needs of families amid the COVID crisis. Schools and early care sites became a critical access point for Child Nutrition Program meals as well as local food boxes, food shares, and gardening resources and education. In many communities, local food organizations and aggregators have acted as key connectors across local food systems and emergency food systems. Now is a vital time to consider what we have learned from this experience and ensure that local and regional food systems as well as schools and early care sites are well supported and sufficiently funded so they can continue to be a bridge to good food for children and families.
This blog was originally posted on May 18, 2021.
News Release: Local School Foods Expansion Act Introduced in Senate & House
When schools purchase locally grown foods for school meals, it is a triple win for kids, family farmers, and local economies. Today, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT) took an important step towards providing more schools flexibility in making impactful local food purchases by introducing the Local School Foods Expansion Act, which will expand the successful Unprocessed Fruit and Vegetable Pilot project to 14 states, while also increasing technical assistance and capacity building to improve access to this valuable program for schools with racially diverse and high-need student populations and for socially disadvantaged farmers. National Farm to School Network applauds the introduction of this bill and encourages all Members of Congress to support its inclusion in the upcoming Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR).
“This expansion of the Unprocessed Fruit and Vegetable pilot program offers participating schools the opportunity to cultivate their own purchasing relationships with local producers, which directly translates to kids eating more local, fresh, and unprocessed or minimally processed foods in school meals. Thanks to leadership from Senator Wyden and Congressman Welch, the Local School Foods Expansion Act will nearly double the number of states with access to this flexibility and increase vital technical assistance to maximize its impact,” said Karen Spangler, Policy Director with National Farm to School Network. “National Farm to School Network is proud to endorse this bill because its provisions are directly responsive to what we have learned from schools participating in the existing eight-state pilot. With a renewed focus on equitable capacity building to ensure that small producers, Tribal producers, and schools in every community have the resources to benefit, scaling up this Pilot project so more states can participate is a promising opportunity.”
The Unprocessed Fruit and Vegetable Pilot project was created as part of the 2014 Farm Bill and currently operates in California, Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington. In addition to expanding the project to up to an additional 7 states, the Local School Foods Expansion Act will include $25 million for technical assistance to help schools in participating states build their capacity for local food procurement and to assist new produce vendors in being approved to sell to schools.
National Farm to School Network is advocating that the Local Foods Expansion Act, as well as other important marker bills that will advance farm to school and equity in the food system, be included in the upcoming CNR. National Farm to School Network is committed to supporting policies that build on six shared community values – economic and environmental justice, health, racial equity, workers rights, and animal welfare – which will move the country towards a just, equitable food system that promotes the health of all school children and benefits producers, workers, educators, and our communities.
Read the full press release here.
This was originally posted on May 14, 2021.
What We’re Advocating for in 2021 Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization
By Anna Mullen, NFSN Communications Director
This spring, National Farm to School Network is keeping a close eye on Washington, D.C. as Congressional leaders begin to build momentum for Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization ("CNR") – the package of bills that authorizes federal school meal and child nutrition programs. For the farm to school community, CNR is an especially important piece of legislation as it sets the standards and parameters of meals served to nearly 30 million children every school day.
A strong CNR built on our shared community values (read more about these below) can be a win for our kids by ensuring nourishing food is served in meals and snacks; a win for farmers by creating school market opportunities that provide reliable and consistent sales and fair pay; and a win for our communities by creating conditions for school food to be grown, distributed, prepared and consumed in ways that benefit everyone along the way. But for these wins to become reality, we must advocate for a CNR that is firmly centered in equity – and that’s what National Farm to School Network is doing.
What is CNR? The Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization authorizes federal school meal and child nutrition programs including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, among others. The package of bills that make up CNR is meant to be reauthorized every five years, but the last CNR to pass was the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. That makes this upcoming CNR a once-in-a-decade opportunity to strengthen the programs that feed our nation's kids.
CNR and Farm to School: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was groundbreaking for the farm to school movement. For the first time, this legislation supported farm to school directly by providing $5 million in annual mandatory funding for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to School Grant Program. This was a major victory for National Farm to School Network and farm to school partners across the country, funding competitive grants and technical assistance for farm to school activities that increase the use of and improve access to local foods in schools. Since its inception, USDA has awarded over $52 million through Farm to School Grants, funding a total of 719 projects across all 50 States, the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico, reaching almost 21 million students in 47,000 schools.
While policies like this can and have helped more schools across the nation create a pathway to practicing farm to school, there’s more work that needs to be done to ensure equitable access to the resources, opportunities and benefits of these activities. Many of the systems and sectors that intersect with CNR’s provisions – including the food system, education system and economic system, among others – are deeply racialized and have in the past and continue in the present to exclude, disadvantage, and cause harm to Black, Indigenous, Latino and other people of colors in our communities. Systems like these that are failing any of us are failing all of us, and we can not engage in farm to school effectively without changing them. That’s why as CNR ramps up in 2021, National Farm to School Network is focusing intentionally on provisions that address systemic barriers in farm to school and create racial equity in the food system.
Equity at the Center: We believe that building the next CNR on six shared community values will help move us closer to the just, equitable food system, education system, and farm to school movement that we seek. You can read more about each of these values here.
These values can be realized in the next CNR through well-thought-out and equity-conscious marker bills, such as the Farm to School Act of 2021, the Kids Eat Local Act, the Universal School Meals Program Act, the Local School Foods Expansion Act, and others. You can read more about the marker bills we are endorsing and the CNR priorities we're advocating for here. A more just, equitable and community-centered CNR is possible and we must encourage and hold our Members of Congress accountable to making it so.
What Can You Do to Prepare for CNR? As the National Farm to School Network prepares for the likely return of CNR this summer we want to hear from you! As our name implies, we are truly a national network of stakeholders, and our policy agenda is driven by advocates like you. To prepare for the upcoming reauthorization, you can:
- Learn about the marker bills National Farm to School Network has endorsed.
- Donate to support our policy work and help us be a strong voice for farm to school and a racially just food system on Capitol Hill as CNR approaches
- Subscribe to our e-newsletter for the latest farm to school CNR updates
- Build and strengthen your advocacy networks - check out our advocacy fact sheet for ideas
In the near future:
- Prepare your asks - as a constituent, what actions do you want to see from your legislators as CNR is debated?
- Cultivate your legislative champions - find your Members of Congress here
If and when the Reauthorization takes place:
- Provide feedback to the National Farm to School Network
- Contact your legislators - find your Members of Congress here
Have questions about CNR or want to learn more about how you can be a farm to school policy advocate? Contact our Policy Team.