NASHVILLE, Tenn., July 12, 2011 – Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan today highlighted the importance of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and announced the findings of USDA's first Farm to School report during the 2011 School Nutrition Association national convention. Merrigan delivered remarks to thousands of school nutrition professionals at the three-day event which provided an opportunity to discuss the Obama administration's efforts to improve the health and nutrition of meals served through the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.
"By working closely with school nutrition professionals, the Obama Administration is promoting initiatives that provide kids with access to nutritious foods and information to teach them healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime" said Merrigan. "Farm to school programs are a great way to bring more fresh, local produce into school cafeterias and support local farmers as well. Many schools are also using Farm to School programs to teach students where their food comes from through nutrition education."
A USDA Farm to School Team was established late in 2009 as a result of discussions within the department-wide Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which seeks to create new economic opportunities by promoting local and regional food systems that help keep wealth in rural communities. These discussions focused on the need to develop strategies to enhance market opportunities for local farmers as well as the need to better connect farmers with consumers and thereby increase public understanding of American agriculture. Farm to School was quickly identified as a strategy that could potentially contribute to both goals.
During 2010, the team visited 15 school districts across the country that were involved in farm to school related activities in varying capacities, reviewed resource materials, participated in national and regional conferences and consulted with other organizations that worked with the farm to school community. The report published today summarizes the observations of these activities. This report also provides suggestions for further action by USDA to support schools in obtaining fresh and healthy food from their local and regional food systems. USDA's Farm to School Team found that communities are passionate about providing locally grown products to schools and work hard to overcome challenges such as the limited availability of local agricultural products and difficulties with processing and storage.
Merrigan also announced that USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and Food Nutrition Service (FNS) will conduct a pilot for acquiring fresh fruits and vegetables to build on farm-to-school programs in Florida and Michigan. The pilot will use commercial distribution models already in place and allow schools to obtain locally grown produce. Additionally, USDA's National Agricultural Library published a new resource titled 'Farm to School: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography.
With one in every three children in America at risk for preventable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease due to overweight and obesity, school nutrition improvements are an investment in improving our children's future and are critical to helping them maintain optimal health, she said. School meals currently reach nearly 32 million children each school day nationwide, and many children consume as many as half their daily calories at school.
Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed by President Obama in December 2010. The legislation, which reauthorized the Child Nutrition programs, will allow USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, the chance to make real reforms to the school meals programs improve the nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children, and help a new generation win the future by having healthier lives. The Act is the legislative centerpiece of the Let's Move! initiative.
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service oversees 15 nutrition assistance programs that touch the lives of one in four Americans over the course of a year. The programs work together to form a national safety net against hunger. The National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs provide nutritionally balanced, free and low-cost meals to nearly 32 million school children each school day. SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, puts healthy food in reach for more than 44 million Americans each month, half of whom are children.