The number of schools participating in farm-to-school programs and activities is on the rise, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.
About 42 percent of districts who responded to a national survey the agency fielded in 2015 reported that their schools participated in such activities during the 2013-14 school year, the USDA reported last week. And surveyed districts reported investing $789 million on locally purchased food that year. That’s a 105 percent increase from the 2011-12 school year, when the agency first began its Farm to School Census.
And it looks like the growth of the program will continue. Nearly half of districts said they plan to increase local purchasing in coming years, and 16 percent said they plan to start farm-to-school activities in the future.
Here’s what you need to know about the school food trend.
Farm-to-School Activities Take a Variety of Forms
The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which sets rules for school meals, created the USDA’s farm-to-school program to help encourage healthy eating habits for students and to encourage innovation and cooperation in local food purchasing.
“The term ‘farm to school’ represents a suite of activities centered on connecting local farmers and food producers to schools, teaching children where their food comes from, and expanding market opportunities for agricultural producers of all kinds,” the census says.
While serving local foods is the most common farm-to-school activity by far, schools also report conducting field trips to local farms and coordinating with farmers on classroom activities, using “taste testing” and other forms of student input to encourage eating of fresh produce, and adopting “smarter lunchroom” strategies that encourage healthy eating by changing the way school meals are offered and displayed.
There Is No Fixed Definition for ‘Local’
Through the farm-to-school program, districts can apply for grants and share strategies to support the purchase of local foods, but it’s up to them to decide what “local” means.
“Definitions for local vary widely depending on the unique geography and climate where a school is located and on the abundance of local food producers and manufacturers,” the USDA says. “Many schools define local as within a certain number of miles from the school, within the county, or within the state. “
Some schools even use different definitions for local depending on the product or the season, the agency says.
What are some common barriers to purchasing local foods? Nearby farmers may not be growing the right products, or the amount schools need to purchase may be too small or too large to make sense economically for them. Using farm-to-school grants, some regions have worked directly with farmers to purchase fresh vegetables collectively, to help align supply with demand, and to give students experiences that encourage them to try new foods.
Kitchen Equipment Can Be a Barrier to Serving Local Food
Outdated and inadequate kitchen equipment can make it difficult for some schools to offer local foods in their cafeterias.
That’s because local farmers may not offer fresh vegetables that have been sliced, diced, trimmed, and packaged the way national food providers do.
And, as child nutrition advocates are quick to point out, many school kitchens were built in an era when pre-packaged and frozen fare was more common. That means a lack of equipment can create difficulties for DIY food processing.
A 2014 report on school equipment by the Pew Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project found that 88 percent of school districts need at least one piece of kitchen equipment and 55 percent need kitchen infrastructure changes. Among the most common needs: large-capacity food processors, knife sets and cutting boards, and utility carts.
Some creative school systems have worked around these needs by starting up regional processing hubs through which districts collaboratively purchase and process locally grown foods.
Check out the whole Farm-To-School Census here for more information.
Photo: A student displays freshly harvested beets. Courtesy: USDA Food and Nutrition Service
Related reading on school lunches:
- White House Taps Farm-to-School Advocate to Lead Let’s Move! Campaign
- School Lunch Compromise Moves Forward in Congress
- Turning Cafeterias Into ‘Real Kitchens’
- New School Snack Rules Restrict Calories, Fat
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.