Picture in your mind a school meal tray with five spaces efficiently carved out in slightly varied sizes. They might be filled with milk, an entrée and some colorful fruit- and veggie-based sides, for example. Now picture this: Just about everything you see has the potential to come from local sources.
This nationwide movement to source an increasing amount of foods on school meals trays locally while supporting local economies is often coined as “farm to school.” The term covers efforts that bring local or regionally produced foods into school cafeterias; connecting these foods to hands-on learning activities such as school gardening, farm visits, and cooking classes; and the integration of food-related education into regular classroom learning. For example, local agriculture- or food-related situations might be used in math, social studies or business classes, or regional vegetables might be investigated in science class. This movement can incorporate a holistic approach to learning centered on food, agriculture and nutrition.
Region-specific offerings can span the school meal tray and include everything from fresh or cooked fruit and vegetable servings to the wheat in the pizza crust, beans in the chili, rice in the stir fry, turkey in the sandwiches, cheese in the quesadillas and the milk to drink. Because of this, farm to school includes all types of producers and food businesses including farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, as well as food processors, manufacturers, and distributors. Schools have the freedom to define “local” on their own and definitions vary widely depending on the unique geography and climate where the school is located and on the availability of local food.
There is an official program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called the Farm to School Program, which came to be as a result of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This Act gives the go-ahead to USDA to provide grants and hands-on help to help schools get better access to local foods. Also a key part is USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, which coordinates USDA’s work on local food systems.
USDA recently surveyed school districts across the country on their farm to school and local food buying efforts. An estimated 43% of public school districts in the U.S. have an existing Farm to School Program in place, while another 13% of school districts surveyed are committed to launching a Farm to School Program in the near future. In School Year 2011-2012, schools purchased and served over $350 million in local food! Click here to find survey results for your child’s school.
How to learn and do more about farm to school:
- Ask your child’s teacher, principal or food service director what farm to school projects they’re involved in or would like to be involved in.
- Schools across the country can apply for farm to school grants – both for planning and for implementation (action). You can encourage your child’s school to apply for a grant or offer to help bring fun farm to school ideas to life by volunteering or donating tools, expertise or good ideas.
- See how your county scores in terms of food environment by checking out the Food Environment Atlas.
- To get those creative juice flowing:
- Look into local Cooperative Extension System Offices through land-grant universities. They’re great for useful, practical and research-based food and agricultural information.
- Click here for other ways to get involved in starting or ramping up Farm to School activities in your local district.
Do you have any farm to school experiences or photos you’d like to share? Or any ideas for your local districts? Please share!