Across the country, an increasing number of schools and districts have begun to source more foods locally and to provide complementary educational activities to students that emphasize food, farming, and nutrition. This nationwide movement to enrich children’s bodies and minds while supporting local economies is often referred to as “farm to school.” The term encompasses efforts that bring local or regionally produced foods into school cafeterias; hands-on learning activities such as school gardening, farm visits, and culinary classes; and the integration of food-related education into the regular, standards-based classroom curriculum. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports such efforts through its Farm to School Program, which includes research, training, technical assistance, and grants.
Regional offerings (and therefore economic opportunities for local food producers) can span the school meal tray and include everything from fresh fruit and vegetable servings to the wheat in the pizza crust, beans in the chili, rice in the stir fry, turkey in the sandwiches, and cheese in the quesadillas. Thus, farm to school includes of all types of producers and food businesses including farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, as well as food processors, manufacturers, and distributors. Schools can define “local” however they choose, and definitions vary widely depending on the unique geography and climate where the school is located, and on the abundance of local food producers.
Healthy habits take root
USDA surveyed over 13,000 public school districts to determine the prevalence of farm to school approaches throughout the country, and the results are in! According to USDA’s first-ever Farm to School Census, in school year 2011-2012, schools participating in farm to school activities purchased and served over $385 million in local food, with more than half of participating schools planning to purchase even more local foods in future school years.
Forty-four percent of public school districts across the country reported having an existing farm to school program in place, with another 13 percent of school districts surveyed committed to launching a farm to school program in the near future.
Interest in local products spans the school meal tray, with fruits, vegetables, and milk topping the list of local products currently offered in schools across the country, while census respondents indicate an interest in local plant-based proteins, grains and flour, and meat and poultry in the future.
We’re here to help!
The USDA Farm to School Program is operated by the Department’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which has seven regional offices around the country; in each is a Farm to School Regional Lead who is available to provide farm to school related support to state agencies and other entities in their region. A list of regions, along with the names and contact information for regional and national USDA Farm to School Program staff, can be found here. To receive information and updates about USDA’s Farm to School Program, please sign up for our Farm to School E-letter.
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