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!