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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.”

Nutrition Label 2.0: Bigger, Bolder, Better

Today, First Lady Michelle Obama–known for her role in the Let’s Move! Campaign–announced the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed changes to The Nutrition Facts label. These are the first changes to the familiar black-and-white informational text box since its inception in 1993. And they couldn’t have arrived any sooner. Read more

Can Organic Farming and GMOs Coexist?

In the fields of Iowa where I grew up, organic soy and corn does indeed exist alongside genetically modified (or “GMO”) varieties. But the policy allowing so-called “coexistence” of organic and GMO crops now in place in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is one-sided and precarious at best.

More than 90 percent of the soybeans and corn grown on U.S. soil are from GMO seeds, which are modified to withstand heavy applications of herbicides and pesticides. Among those pesticides is 2,4-D, which contains the same chemical used in Agent Orange. Read more

Chinese Chicken: Why I’m Starting Another Food Petition & How You Can Help

As many of you know, in March, 2012 I launched on The Lunch Tray a Change.org petition seeking to remove lean, finely textured beef (“LFTB,” more widely known as “pink slime”) from the ground beef procured by the USDA for the National School Lunch Program.  The petition garnered over a quarter of a million signatures in just a few days and ultimately led the USDA to change its policy, allowing school districts for the first time to opt out of receiving beef containing LFTB. Read more

Sustainable Food Loses Its Biggest Champion in Washington, D.C.

The Obama administration is losing its most powerful supporter of local and organic foods. Kathleen Merrigan, the No. 2 official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced last week that she would be leaving her post as USDA’s deputy secretary. Sustainable agriculture groups responded with dismay and disappointment to what the Columbus Dispatch described as her “abrupt” departure. The food industry publication The Packer speculated that this could spell “the end of local food at USDA.” Read more

Consumer Reports Finds Most Pork Contaminated With Yersinia

In a new study of raw pork chops and ground pork, Consumer Reports found 69 percent samples were contaminated with Yersinia enterocolitica, according to a report published by the group today. A lesser-known foodborne pathogen, Yersinia enterocolitica can cause fever, abdominal pain and diarrhea, lasting one to three weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is approximately one confirmed infection per 100,000 people reported each year, but since these cases are severely under-reported, CDC estimates there are actually around 100,000 infections in the United States annually.

Consumer Reports tested 198 samples and found that while the vast majority were positive for Yersinia, only 3 to 7 percent were positive for more the more common foodborne pathogens Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus or Listeria monocytogenes.

According to the report, several of the isolates found were resistant to one or more antibiotics: Six of the eight Salmonella samples, 13 of the 14 Staphylococcus samples and 121 of the 132 Yersinia samples. The study also found MRSA on one sample.

The group points to the widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture as a key contributor to the resistance problem. Read more