Healthy Schools Campaign believes health and wellness should be incorporated into every aspect of the school experience, which is why supporting healthy school food has been a focus of our work over the last decade. Farm-to-school programs play an important role in our ongoing school food policy initiatives, innovative procurement strategies, food education, school garden development and parent engagement.
Farm-to-school programs focus on bringing fresh, local food to schools. But they also offer nutrition education that emphasizes hands-on activities, including school gardens, field trips to local farms and cooking classes. Studies published in Childhood Obesity and Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found strong farm-to-school programs encourage students to eat more fruits and vegetables, which reduces plate waste.
Farm-to-school programs are taking root across the country. According to the USDA’s Farm to School Census, 42 percent of schools that responded to the survey have farm-to-school programs and 16 percent plan on starting one soon. During the 2013-2014 school year, schools purchased $800 million worth of local food from farmers, ranchers, fishermen, food processors and manufacturers—a 105 percent increase from the previous year.
HSC staff recently attended the annual Farm to Cafeteria conference in Madison, Wis., and we’ve come back to Chicago reenergized to our commitment to farm-to-school efforts here in Chicago. At the conference, First Lady Michelle Obama told attendees via video conference to continue working and not take their feet off the gas. HSC incorporates farm-to-school efforts in our policy work and several of our programs, including our principal and teacher professional development program, our healthy cooking contest, our schoolyard transformation program and work with parent leaders.
HSC has worked closely with Chicago Public Schools to transform its school food program, and promoting local procurement has been a priority. Over the years, CPS has been a leader in farm-to-school, developing a program that includes locally sourced frozen produce and antibiotic-free chicken. CPS now features fresh, local items on its menu weekly, including carrots, green beans, corn and apples.
Through our Fit to Learn program, HSC offers professional development strategies to help principals and teachers incorporate lessons about healthy food and nutrition into the classroom experience. This process includes teaching students where their food comes from, how it’s grown, and why eating local, nutritious food is important. For example, a sample Fit to Learn lesson has students taste local, seasonal produce and categorize each item as a fruit or vegetable. The class then discusses where the food came from and why it’s healthy.
HSC hosts an annual cooking competition that puts student voices front and center in the national dialogue about school food. Cooking up Change challenges high school culinary students across the country to create healthy school meals that their peers will enjoy, while facing real-life constraints of national school food nutrition standards, budget restrictions and everyday food service ingredients and facilities. Teams are also required to source at least one local ingredient, which incorporates the local flavor and flair of their respective regions. Cooking up Change is a dynamic culinary competition, but it’s more than that—it’s an important vehicle for building strong support for healthier and more sustainable school food at the local and national levels.
In partnership with Openlands, HSC is transforming Chicago schoolyards into places where students and community members can learn how to grow their own food and engage in nutrition education at their neighborhood schools. Many of the Space to Grow schools participate in the district’s Eat What You Grow certification program offered by CPS’ Office of School Health and Wellness.
HSC organizes and activates Chicago parents around school health and wellness issues. Through our Parents United for Healthy Schools program, we provide parents with the training and resources they need to have a strong voice on these issues, which was integral when working with CPS on the implementation of its farm-to-school program. At individual schools and within their communities, empowered parents have organized healthy cooking workshops and nutrition education classes that stress the importance of local, sustainable food.