USDA Highlights Opportunities to Connect Garden + Cafeteria

December 05, 2014

The USDA has issued a memo to the nation’s school food service directors clarifying ways that schools can use federal nutrition funds to support school gardening.

There’s something that tastes downright amazing about a vegetable you’ve grown yourself. That first time you pull vegetables you planted as seeds and tended for months? It’s an occasion you could honestly describe as joyful. That’s why school gardens are such powerful tools for nutrition education: research continues to show that students who are involved in growing vegetables are more likely to develop a liking for vitamin-packed carrots, broccoli or other produce.

More and more schools are leveraging this phenomenon with gardens that engage students in learning about food and nutrition. And now, some schools are finding innovative ways to serve that produce in their own cafeterias, with rave reviews from students.

With a recent policy clarification from the USDA, we’re one step closer to making this experience a reality at even more schools across the country.

The USDA has issued a memo to the nation’s school food service directors clarifying ways that schools can use federal nutrition funds to support school gardening. This is a powerful milestone in the effort to promote healthy school food.

The memo emphasizes the value that a school garden can bring to a school meal program, specifically focusing on nutrition education (gardens’ unique power to get kids excited about eating the veggies on their lunch tray) and on opportunities to serve produce from the garden. It outlines research-based “positive impacts associated with school gardens,” including:

  • Improving student attitudes toward fruits and vegetables
  • Increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables
  • Improving job satisfaction and staff retention
  • Providing quality fresh product at competitive prices or no cost, and
  • Increasing school meal participation.

For those working closely on the logistics of a school garden or cafeteria program, it offers important specifics about how the funding can and cannot be used. (For example, funding can be used to buy seeds or to fund a garden coordinator position to engage students in tending the seeds that grow into carrots for a cafeteria taste-test. It can’t be used to build a big greenhouse.) You can read the full memo here.

For all of us who care about school wellness, this memo is about more than the specifics of funding rules. It represents an important milestone in the effort to support healthy school food and nutrition education, and a culture shift — both in the federal government and in our society as a whole — in valuing knowledge and education about where and how our food is grown. It’s about recognizing the power and joy of planting, pulling, preparing and devouring your very own carrot.

At the grassroots level, it means that school leaders, parents, food service professionals, health advocates and community gardeners have been bringing this issue to the attention of the USDA. On-the-ground leaders have been asking questions and thereby sending the message that gardening is a valuable and viable tool for nutrition education.

At the federal government level, it means that the USDA is proactively highlighting ways to fund school gardening and making an effort to “encourage innovative ways of meeting the goals of the school meals programs.”

This is excellent news for children’s health.

Here at HSC, we’ve been thrilled to see garden-to-cafeteria efforts firsthand in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). You can read more about the CPS Eat What You Grow pilot program here. And if you need any further proof of the link between garden-grown carrots and pure joy, check out this photo from a recent Eat What You Grow garden harvest day at Murphy Elementary here in Chicago.

Murphy went on to serve the carrots in the school cafeteria. We’re willing to bet the student in this photo will keep loving carrots — and peppers, and broccoli — long after the garden is harvested and long after he leaves Murphy Elementary.

With this recent move from the USDA, we’re hopeful that more students across the country will have the same experience.