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When you dream up your child’s perfect school cafeteria menu, do you imagine the offerings include fresh, locally grown broccoli? How about locally produced whole grain flour used to create kids’ weekly favorite: pizza? Or maybe you envision locally grown peaches, ripe and bursting with flavor, a little sweet and sticky juice dribbling down the sides where they’ve been sliced?
Parents, we don’t have to dream any longer! Farm to School programs across the country now deliver locally sourced produce and foods right to our children’s lunch trays, with some foods as local as the garden out behind the school!
I recently attended the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference as their guest to learn how school menus are developed and how school lunches are changing and evolving to improve the quality of food our kids eat every day.
What is Farm to School?
The Farm to School movement aims to bring fresh, healthy food to our kids in schools by working with local food growers and producers. This initiative also encourages education for kids, parents, teachers, and schools about the benefits of purchasing and eating local.
Farm to School is not limited to public schools: charter schools and private schools embrace Farm to School principles as well.
Farm to School also reaches far beyond the concept of school gardens (although,there are currently 7,000 school gardens in action in America today!). It also includes the procurement of local and state farm grown produce, meats, and other foods. And, Farm to School encompasses the addition of culinary arts classes and educational programs that take place for students and even parents both during and after school.
According to the USDA’s recent Farm to School Census:
- 42% of school districts surveyed participate in farm to school activities (that’s 5,254 districts around the country and 42,587 schools)
- 23.6 million children benefited from Farm to School activities
- This participation means $790 million is invested in local foods across the country
Why Farm to School?
Farm to School benefits kids, their communities, and area farmers.
Kids benefit because they:
- eat more fruits and vegetables.
- have increased physical activity.
- have an increased interest in school meal participation.
Kids tell their parents about the produce they’re eating at school. Parents tend to go out and buy these items at the store. Often, grocery stores located near Farm to School programs see a run on a particular item that’s tied directly back to a school or school farm or local farmer’s produce because the kids got excited about eating that item at school.
Communities benefit because Farm to School:
- circulates money within the community to support the local and state economy.
- creates jobs.
- connects school nutrition staff directly with food producers to offer increased selection of produces for school meals.
Farmers benefit because Farm to School:
- expands market opportunity and income potential.
- allows farmers to sell surplus products (and “ugly duckling” produce: fruits & veg with bumps or bruises that might not sell at the store. These minimally damaged items can have bruises cut off by cafeteria staff before serving.).
- increases the demand and awareness of their local foods.
Is Farm to School happening in San Antonio?
While attending the School Nutrition Association’s annual conference, I met with Louisa Kates, Director of NEISD’s School Nutrition Services. She proudly told me that North East Independent School District (NEISD) here in San Antonio recently won a Farm to School grant worth $45,000 to begin implementing Farm to School initiatives.
This grant allows NEISD to expand upon their ability to work on bids for Texas-produced foods (one such item is whole grain flour which they purchase locally from C. H. Guenther). NEISD also used some of the grant money to fund a chef position. The newly hired chef develops recipes, streamlines their current procedures, improves upon what the district is already doing to create healthy student meals, and, eventually, will provide better skills for the nutrition staff via training.
According to the USDA’s Farm to School Census, several other San Antonio schools and school districts are actively participating in Farm to School programs and many others plan to jump in soon. Some of the local school districts participating in Farm to School programs include:
- Alamo Heights
- Boerne ISD
- Edgewood ISD
- KIPP: San Antonio
- New Frontiers Charter School
- Judson Independent School District
How to get Farm to School activities started in your school
If you didn’t see your child’s school district on the list above, you might wonder: how can I get my school started with Farm to School activities? When I asked Louisa what parents can do to generate a school’s interest in Farm to School, she gave me a few pointers:
Schedule a tour of your school’s cafeteria
(not during lunch or breakfast, preferably, when the staff is busy). Get to know the cafeteria staff. Find out if they have any opinions about Farm to School.
Find out if any teachers are interested in championing a school garden
(which, it’s worth noting, is a year-round endeavor!).
Schedule a meeting with your school’s principal.
Consider inviting the cafeteria manager and any teachers who are interested in Farm to School to begin discussions on how you might create Farm to School initiatives together.
Apply for one of the USDA’s Farm to School grants.
Through a partnership with the Farm to School Network and the USDA’s Farm to School Program, grants are available to schools that apply to help get their Farm to School initiatives up and running.
Between 2013 and 2016, $20 million in grants was awarded to schools, funding 300 projects around the country in 49 states, Washington DC and the Virgin Islands. However, the demand for grant money far exceeds what’s available so competition is tough. 1,000 requests for grants, totaling $75 million in projects have been received, demonstrating the popularity and necessity for Farm to School programs in our schools.
Because competition for grants is high, get your application in early and have a good idea of the projects you want the grant to fund.
This year the release for Request for Applications for Grants will take place in September. Sign up to receive the USDA’s e-newsletter, The Dirt, which is delivered every other Tuesday, for more info on grant applications and the timeline.
October is National Farm to School Month. Keep your eyes open for more details about Farm to School!