How Farm to School Supports the School Food Nutrition Standards

April 08, 2015

The Farm to School Act of 2015 would increase funding for the USDA’s grant program.

During the first three years of the USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program, which provides funding for schools to integrate local food into their school meal programs, the department received more than 1,000 applications which would have totaled more than $78 million in grant funding.

But the department only had $5 million to give out per year. “Clearly, the demand is much much higher than what the grant program can currently offer,” said Anupama Joshi, executive director and co-founder of the National Farm to School Network, one of the organizations that advocated for the Farm to School Grant Program to be established through the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

The Farm to School Act of 2015, introduced at the end of February, if approved, would triple the funding available through the grant program — from $5 to $15 million per year — as well as fully include preschools, summer food programs and after-school programs in the grant program; improve participation from beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers; and increase access to local food among tribal schools. The National Farm to School Network, in partnership with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, is leading the charge on farm to school provisions in Child Nutrition Reauthorization 2015, and Healthy Schools Campaign is a strong supporter.

Joshi’s desire to increase the capacity of the USDA’s farm to school program is based in a conviction that farm to school serves as a tremendous way for schools to meet the nutrition standards laid out by HHFKA. “Farm to school is one strategy schools can use to meet the new nutrition standards” she said. “Farm to school is not just about providing good food, it is about getting taste tests into the mix, getting children educated about their food and getting kids in the garden.”

Joshi points out that research shows that people — including children — have to try a new food 10 to 12 times before they’re willing to make it a part of their regular diet. Introducing children to new foods through taste tests and other educational experiences is a proven way for them to learn to enjoy new fruits and vegetables. That will ensure students aren’t throwing out their school food, which has been one of the criticisms of the new nutrition standards. Several studies have shown that with the right approach, children are indeed eating more fruits and vegetables and not just tossing them in the trash.

These study results don’t exist in a vacuum. School districts are seeing this play out every day. Take Detroit Public Schools (DPS), for example. Betti Wiggins, the executive director of the Office of Food Services at DPS, testified last summer to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry that the district is seeing great results from its farm to school program, adding that teenagers are eating — and enjoying — asparagus grown in their own state.

We worked with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to form advisory groups of parents and other school stakeholders, which recommended increasing farm to school procurement. To bring farm-raised chicken to CPS, we helped develop a partnership that led to CPS serving scratch-cooked, hormone free Amish-raised chicken drumsticks. We have also promoted farm to school programs by including local ingredients in our Cooking up Change healthy cooking contest.

In both the case of Detroit and Chicago, educating students about farm to school programs as well as information about specific items offered, the children were exposed to the new fruits and vegetables several times. “The relationship between the child and their food is deeper than what you see on the lunch tray,” Joshi said.

And the food on the school lunch tray is increasingly local, data from the USDA’s Farm to School Census show. During the 2011-2012 school year, 44 percent of schools in the U.S. were engaged in farm to school activities — representing 4,322 districts, 40,328 schools and 23,513,237 students. And the appetite for locally grown food is increasing. The same census found that 13 percent of schools are hoping to start a farm to school program in the future.

At a time when some are suggesting the current school nutrition standards should be scaled back, Joshi and the National Farm to School Network — as well as us here at HSC — stand firm in the belief that the requirements set out by HHFKA are both necessary and doable. “We believe that the nutrition standards should stand without any modifications,” Joshi said. “The nutrition standards are science-based and form the basis for raising a healthier generation of children. The farm to school approach is integral to ensuring school districts can meet the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.”

More funding for farm to school grants means more schools can add fresh and local food to their school meals programs to help meet the nutrition standards. And more schools serving fresh and local food to students is something everyone can get behind.