Supporting Local and Regional Food Systems Through USDA Programs

November 04, 2013

Rochelle Davis on the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food fall convening.

by Rochelle Davis, President + CEO, Healthy Schools Campaign

Earlier this fall, I had the honor of participating in the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food convening in Chicago. As part of President Obama’s commitment to strengthening local and regional food systems, the USDA has introduced programs to stimulate food and agriculturally based community economic development, promote locally and regionally produced food and to increase access to affordable, fresh and local food. The convening was part of their effort to reach interested farmers, businesses, organizations and local government about the host of programs that are now available to strengthen local and regional food systems.

The USDA has many programs in place to support schools in developing local procurement programs, promote healthy school food and increase student access to healthy food. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has embraced these programs. I was pleased to be on a panel that highlighted how these USDA programs are implemented in Chicago. Leslie Fowler, CPS’ Director of Nutrition Services, discussed the district’s commitment to local procurement.  

Beginning this school year, CPS is expanding its local and sustainable food program to all schools. Linda Mallers, founder of FarmLogix, introduced her innovative program by which CPS will track produce from the farm to the school. Schools will be provided with information about the farmers who have grown the food that is available in their cafeteria. In addition, the amount of local produce purchased will be tracked on a publicly available website. (FarmLogix recently received a Chicago Innovation award.)

I spoke about other USDA programs that support healthy school food. The USDA offers a recognition program, the HealthierUS School Challenge, to encourage schools to support healthy food and incorporate nutrition education in the classroom. Over the last three years, in partnership with CPS and others, more than 200 CPS schools have met the health-promoting standards of the HealthierUS School Challenge. Students in these schools benefit from healthier food, increased nutrition education and more physical activity, and this initiative informed changes to CPS’s new wellness policy.

This effort to support local and regional food systems is unprecedented in the history of the USDA. Schools, in particular, benefit significantly from this support. When schools connect with local food systems, students consume a fresher product; schools build important working relationships with local producers and students learn more about where their food comes from. As more schools seek opportunities to work within local and regional food systems, it is important they have support in this process, and the USDA is providing more of those resources than ever.

I hope that from our participation on this panel, my fellow attendees were able to learn more about how USDA programs are incorporating schools into the local and regional food systems and creating healthier school environments. I look forward to seeing how schools will use these great resources in the future.