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USDA Pilots New Farm-To-School Programs

At first glance, the 2014 Farm Bill may look like business as usual. But there is also some good news for local food advocates buried deep in the $956 billion bill, and a new pilot program that promises to place more local produce in schools is worth applauding.

Starting next school year, these programs would provide local fruit and vegetables for at least five, and up to eight, pilot schools across the country, with at least one state in each of the five main regions of the country (the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, the South, the West, and the Midwest). (The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is expected to release a Request for Proposals (RFP) in the coming months.)

Although the pilot programs do not have any mandatory funding attached to them, USDA expects to be able to move forward with the implementation of the programs without any additional funding.

The new program carries forward another pilot that took place in 2011, in Michigan and Florida schools, where USDA purchased local lettuce, apples, grapes, oranges, carrots, and blueberries, and funneled them to schools through the state.

Although non-governmental (non-profit and school-based) farm-to-school programs have existed in several states throughout the country for many years, and a large number of states have passed farm-to-school legislation, the USDA program is essentially the first federally backed investment supporting the inclusion of local fruits and vegetables for school breakfast, lunch, and snack programs.

In terms of federal legislation, farm-to-school has been part of the Child Nutrition Act since 2004, and in 2010, USDA received funding to administer the Farm to School Grant Program. Now the Farm Bill also includes explicit language in support of farm-to-school. Ideally, say advocates, this will makes it easier for schools to be flexible in what they can serve their students, and support accompanying food and nutrition education.

Along with school gardens and food systems education, the National Farm to School Network’s (NFSN) Policy and Strategic Partnerships Director Helen Dombalis says “local procurement is the third key piece of farm-to-school.” NFSN advocated for the pilots along with National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and Dombalis sees them as an important start.

Eugene Kim, a Policy Specialist at NSAC, described the pilots as “a great opportunity to encourage diversity and innovation in farm-to-school,” and a “chance for schools and states to learn from successes and failures.”

By reconnecting young people to their food and giving them access to more fresh fruits and vegetables, farm-to-school programming is known to generate an increased interest in and willingness to try healthy foods.

There is also ample science showing that foods that are consumed closer to their source generally contain a higher nutrient value. And small, localized farms to tend to favor taste, nutrition, and diversity over maximum yield and “shipability” when choosing varieties.

Sourcing fresh, local food for school lunches carries with it the added benefit of contributing to the local economy and supporting local farmers. In one economic analysis, Cooperative Extension in Minnesota found that farmers were positively impacted by selling their produce to schools, regardless of how much the schools were willing to pay for the products, simply because the school system presented a new market.

A Modest Program With Great Potential

In their recommendations to USDA, NFSN, and NSAC make a purposeful attempt to engage beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers (defined as those whose identity in a group has subjected them to racial or ethnic prejudice without regard to their individual identity) in the farm-to-school movement.

USDA also has the opportunity to provide training and technical assistance for school food representatives and farmers.  As with anything in the world of food, both the supply and demand end of the equation must be addressed. USDA has the opportunity to craft resources that both encourage farmers to participate in farm-to-school programs and to provide schools with the tools necessary to purchase, process, and serve food that comes directly from farms (versus pre-prepared foods that merely need to be reheated).

These new pilots might also open the door for USDA to consider a nuanced food safety regimen when it comes to school food that is scale-appropriate and practical for schools and for farmers. Currently farms that sell to schools must be certified through Good Agriculture Practices (GAP), or similar state run food safety regimen. This often poses a barrier to getting fresher, local foods into schools

In the meantime, advocates can celebrate a small win with big potential. Dombalis says,  “We are excited that … USDA will be exploring alternative procurement models for local produce. The lessons learned will inform the future expansion of farm-to-school, ultimately resulting in more wins for kids, farmers, and communities.”

FoodHub Uses Online Social Networking to Get Farm-fresh Food to School Cafeterias

Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s right in front of you. For many individuals and institutions, the problem with switching to local food purchases isn’t that people are unwilling or unenthusiastic, it’s that many just don’t know where to look. With our daily lives moving at breakneck speed amidst a flurry of tweets, emails, and texts, we often find ourselves paying more attention to the screens in front of us than the world in which we live. Organizations around the country are taking advantage of this period of technological innovation by developing virtual tools to help open our eyes to the bounty of our local food systems.

One such organization is Ecotrust based in Portland, Ore. Two years ago, they launched FoodHub, a social networking tool that revitalizes regional agriculture by helping farmers and buyers find one another online, often in a matter of minutes. Read more

Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Deborah Kane

Deborah Kane is the Vice President of Food and Farms for Ecotrust, a Portland, Oregon-based conservation and economic development group that has their hands in a variety of powerful pots including a USDA-backed online service called FoodHub that helps connect farms of every size with schools, hospitals, caterers, restaurants, and distributors. Deborah is also the publisher of Edible Portland. She was invited to the White House a few weeks ago to brief President Obama on FoodHub, which she hopes will go national next year.

What issues have you been focused on?

I’m very focused on connecting producers to domestic markets. Read more

Exclusive Interview with Kathleen Merrigan: Farm to School Movement Comes of Age

It’s a big day for the farm to school movement. At the 2011 School Nutrition Association national convention in Nashville today, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced a comprehensive, groundbreaking report on the current state of farm to school efforts around the country. Download the full report here.

The data in the report was complied by the USDA Farm to School Team (comprised of both Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) staff), which made visits to 15 school districts (over what time frame) in a wide range of states. Merrigan spoke with Civil Eats earlier today about the findings and how it might shape the farm to school landscape of the future. Read more

Happy Anniversary Let’s Move! FoodCorps Recruiting First Class of Service Members

One year ago this week, the Obama administration launched Let’s Move, an initiative to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.  It’s an ambitious–but critically important–goal.

In the last 30 years, the percentage of American children who are overweight or obese has tripled. Diet-related disease, diminished academic performance and a shortened life expectancy threaten the future of our kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three American children born in the year 2000 is on a path toward Type II diabetes. Among children of color, the figure approaches one in two. Retired Generals describe a coming crisis of national security: already, 27 percent of 17-24 year olds are ineligible for military service because of excess body fat.

This administration has placed a strong emphasis on healthy futures for our children, and rightly so: America’s sweeping epidemic of childhood obesity requires us to martial a national response. Read more

FoodCorps Call for Host Sites

A new service program promises to recruit an army of volunteers to help transform school food and, perhaps, groom a new generation of farmers.

Over the last three years, I have received thousands of emails, calls, letters, and in person requests from around the country reiterating the same query: “I love the concept of Farm to School programs, but how do I get started in my community’s school? Our budgets are tight and we just don’t have the sweat equity and the labor to pull it off.”

Normally, I answer by walking through the steps of starting a program and briefly assessing the situation in the school environment: do they have a working kitchen? Are there local farmers interested in selling to the school? Is the Food Service Director on board with incorporating fresh, local product? And so on.

But this time, I can excitedly add to my answer, “Have you heard of FoodCorps?” Read more

Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Debra Eschmeyer

Debra is one of the founders of FoodCorps and the Communications and Outreach Director of the National Farm to School Network, which is a program of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. Debra is also an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Society Fellow. Debra’s previous non-profit work spans the globe in the humanitarian, conservation, sustainable agriculture, and food justice realms. She works from her fifth-generation family farm in Ohio, where she continues her passion for organic farming raising fruits and vegetables.

CE: What issues have you been focused on?

DE: It ranges from food policy, Farm to School, school gardens, school food, rural sociology, obesity, dairy policy, commodity policy, food justice… basically from seed to stomach. The whole gamut.

CE: What inspires you to do this work?

DE: I am a dairy farmer’s daughter and given that there are fewer than 60,000 dairy farmers in the United States, not many people can really understand what that means. But, I grew up with a dairy chip on my shoulder, watching how working for this food system is hard work and when you see that it’s broken even after all of that hard work, that’s frustrating. Read more

Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: James Johnson-Piett

James Johnson-Piett is responsible for the overall management of operations and strategic vision for Urbane Development, a community and economic development firm based in Philadelphia. He specializes in neighborhood scale development and the revitalization of urban commercial and retail amenities. His work focuses on strengthening neighborhood commercial and retail enterprises by providing services and expertise that infuses principles of social entrepreneurship, sustainability, and technical acumen into the core of his client’s operations. He serves as Treasurer on the Board of Directors of the Community Food Security Coalition, is a co-convener of the Healthy Corner Stores Network, and a member of the Philadelphia Development Partnership’s Young Entrepreneur’s Advisory Board. James is an alumnus of Swarthmore College with a B.A. in Political Science and Environmental Studies. I sat down with James to ask him a few questions last week for our new series, Faces & Visions of the Food Movement. Read more

Introducing the FoodCorps

With one in three children (and one in two children of color) overweight or obese in this country, the health of America’s kids is under the microscope and, for the first time in our history, children born now will not live as long as their parents. Michelle Obama has launched her Let’s Move campaign, and chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution brought the school cafeteria to television. But as Oliver’s program showed, one of the biggest barriers to changing kids’ health outcomes is a lack of dedicated labor and expertise.

That is where FoodCorps comes in, an AmeriCorps program that would put service members to work building school gardens and establishing farm-to-school relationships in towns across the United States, specifically in places lacking regular access to fresh produce. A collaboration between the National Farm to School Network, Slow Food USA and other groups, the FoodCorps team has raised more than $215,000 from the Kellogg Foundation and AmeriCorps to develop the program, which could begin as early as 2011. Read more