Inside New York's Pursuit to Bring Local Food into More Schools | Civil Eats

Inside New York’s Pursuit to Bring Local Food into More Schools

As the USDA proposes changing school menus to allow more fries and pizza and fewer vegetables and fruits, the state is working to get more locally grown produce into its schools.

Students eating school food at Hamburg CSD in upstate New York. (Photo by Nancy J. Parisi for AFT)

As winter approached and temperatures dropped in notoriously cold Buffalo, New York last fall, schoolchildren sat down to locally grown roasted vegetables, including parsnips, carrots, and beets. The side dish was the result of a dedicated push from the district: During the 2018-2019 school year, the district more than doubled its spending on local produce compared to the year before—from about $300,000 to $700,000—while also buying more local milk and meat, spending $2.6 million total on foods produced in the state.

“We went beyond the ‘Harvest of the Month,’ and we just said to our produce distributor, ‘Whatever you can get your hands on that’s from New York, we want you to send it our way,’” said Food Service Director Bridget O’Brien-Wood. “Apples, pears, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower… we did a ton in the fall.”

The effort was an attempt to qualify for the state’s new farm-to-school purchasing incentive, which would significantly increase the amount the district received in meal reimbursement money at the end of the year, if it managed to spend 30 percent of its lunch budget on local food.

At a time when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing changing school menus to allow more fries and pizza and fewer vegetables and fruits, the state of New York is working to do the opposite. Buffalo—the largest school district in the state after New York City—is one of several school-food authorities that managed to meet that threshold within the first year of the incentive program, according to a new report from American Farmland Trust (AFT).

“This is no secret, but [farm to school initiatives] do so much more than support our farmers and increase access to healthy New York-grown food for kids,” said AFT’s New York policy manager Samantha Levy, the lead author of the report. “If we’re talking about creating the next generation of food- and agriculturally literate children who have a connection to farms and don’t just think romaine lettuce comes from a grocery store, these are the types of programs that we need to be putting a lot of focus and attention and investment into.”

Farm-to-school initiatives that include programs such as school gardens and food system education have been growing across the country in recent decades. Even so, getting a substantial quantity of fresh, local food into meals is still a major challenge.

Federal initiatives and grants are available in some states to help schools with planning and infrastructure projects, but incentives that directly pay schools to buy local food are rare. New York’s is the most generous yet, so its results come with significant implications about the potential these policies have to truly move the needle.

“Incentive programs are definitely some of our most promising practices in terms of really starting to integrate schools into the local and regional food system,” said Chloe Marshall, a policy specialist for the National Farm to School Network (NFSN). “This is probably the most ambitious we’ve seen so far, especially in terms of per-meal incentives. It’s exciting to see that level of commitment to the program.”

According to the report, the policy has resulted in increases in purchasing across all categories of New York-grown food: 65 percent of respondents reported buying more local fruit compared to past years, 45 percent reported buying more vegetables, and 54 percent reported buying more local milk (at a time when the state’s dairy farms are struggling to stay in business). Seventy-two percent of respondents also said they expected to meet the 30-percent local threshold within five years.

That possibility presents both vast opportunities—especially given the fact that the New York City public school system is the second largest food buyer in the country after the Department of Defense—as well as immense challenges.

The Local Purchasing Landscape in Schools

While the last USDA Farm to School Census found 42 percent of U.S. schools “participate in farm-to-school activities” (based on the 2013-2014 school year), local purchasing isn’t always a given. The same census found schools spent $789 million on local food that year. For comparison, the cost of the national school lunch program in 2018 was close to $14 billion.

Marshall said that schools often use USDA grants to invest in “systems and programs that allow them to sustain a farm-to-school procurement program.” Schools often then supplement federal dollars with funding from state programs; NFSN figures show that 46 states have initiatives in place.

Buffalo Public Schools students prepare food. (Photo by Josh Baldo for AFT)

Most of those state programs are also focused on grants, but a few have implemented purchasing incentives. Oregon has been a leader, with a procurement grant program that reimburses schools for they local food they buy. The state has ramped the program up over the years and expanded it again in 2019. During the 2018-2019 school year, participating school districts spent 23 percent of their total food budgets on Oregon food, totaling about $17.1 million. That was way up from 2017-2018, when 19 percent of their food budgets went to Oregon food, totaling $14.4 million.

In New Mexico, schools can apply for annual grants that provide dollars based on local produce purchasing, and in Michigan, a 10-cent-per-meal reimbursement program has been growing, with 57 districts in 27 counties participating in local food purchasing during the 2018-2019 school year, up from 16 districts in eight counties in 2016-2017.

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A Trailblazing Model

New York’s incentive stands out among the rest: It’s straightforward, universally available, and generous, albeit dependent on a rigorous standard. Schools must spend 30 percent of their lunch dollars on in-state foods, and then the amount they are reimbursed is quadrupled, from six to 25 cents per meal.

“It’s really trailblazing, which made us want to study it,” said AFT’s Levy. While only a handful of the 927 school food authorities (organizations responsible for meal purchasing that may include one or multiple districts) in New York state met the threshold in the first year, 72 percent of the report’s respondents were optimistic that they would get there within five years.

“[Achieving that goal]…would increase the amount of school spending on New York-grown food to almost $150 million over the course of the next five years,” Levy said. That’s compared to the $45.3 million schools spent on New York foods in 2015, according to the report. She noted that economic models from Cornell University suggest that $150 million in local food purchases would have a multiplier effect, resulting in an additional $60 million in spending statewide.

“This is the type of program that has a lot of forward momentum, and if we continue to build on that momentum and move in the right direction, we could see really significant impacts,” she said.

A western New York farmer sells foods destined for the state's schools. (Photo by Josh Baldo for AFT)

A western New York farmer sells foods destined for the state’s schools. (Photo by Josh Baldo for AFT)

The report dedicates a special case study to how New York City feeds its 1.1 million students per day; city officials said they are working toward meeting the 30 percent goal and think it will be possible to get there in three to five years. Achieving that goal could be a watershed for New York farmers and producers.

The Challenges Ahead

Of course, it’s no surprise that the report identified many challenges schools face in sourcing local food. But when it came to cost—the challenge the incentive is designed to address—responses suggested the incentive was effective, Levy said.

Still, O’Brien-Wood said that in Buffalo, food costs had gone up significantly in 2018-2019 and it was not yet clear whether the higher reimbursement numbers would completely make up the difference. While local fruits, vegetables, and milk were often priced comparably to those items sourced from further away, the hot dogs and hamburgers she sourced from small New York producers cost three times the price of commodity meats. And the fact that reimbursement comes after the school year ends means that districts have to be able to take on extra costs up front.

“I think it’s great for the economy, and it’s a healthier hot dog with very little additives and you know where it’s coming from,” O’Brien-Wood said. “But there’s a chance [the budgets] don’t line up. You know, I’m a little anxious.”

Food service directors also have to be able to find local sources for foods that fit into national school nutrition program standards and manage complicated procurement rules. Additionally, many schools don’t have kitchens or staff equipped to cook fresh foods from scratch, and the peak growing season in New York doesn’t match the school year. For example, O’Brien-Wood is deciding whether or not she’ll continue to buy those local burgers, because she’s had trouble making sure each school has the facilities and a team skilled in cooking raw meat from scratch, after many years of reheating processed meats.

And while some schools do source occasional items directly from farms, the report confirmed that most rely heavily on distributors, in the form of national food service companies like Aramark. When asked what they would need to meet the goal of 30 percent local sourcing, the number one strategy identified as “very helpful” was “more New York foods offered by main vendor.”

Schools also depend on those companies to verify the exact farms the foods come from, and the report found examples of distributors not being able to provide evidence that foods were New York-grown when schools asked for it. Buffalo schools’ success, for example, was nearly thwarted when O’Brien-Wood later found out that $9,000 worth of ice cream she had been told was from New York was mislabeled by her distributor.

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Levy noted that accurate geographic labeling—and accountability for suppliers who miss the mark—is critical to the success of the program. “We need to make sure that the information schools are getting from their distributors is absolutely accurate,” she said.

Beyond New York

Now that these challenges have been laid out in the report, Levy said advocates will be able to work on addressing them to ensure more New York schools are able to take advantage of the incentive in the second year. They’ll also use successes from the report to make a case for continued, permanent funding and to lobby for expanding the incentive to total school food budgets, not just lunch.

Students at Hamburg CSD in upstate New York speak with a lunchroom worker. (Photo credit: Nancy J. Parisi for AFT)

Students at Hamburg CSD in upstate New York speak with a lunchroom worker. (Photo credit: Nancy J. Parisi for AFT)

At the same time, school districts in other states may start following their lead. Vermont’s farm-to-school movement is focused on a model that connects “cafeterias, classrooms, and communities.” The state government has supported its efforts through grants and a farm-to-school institute. Recently, advocates in Vermont set a more ambitious goal of 75 percent of schools purchasing at least 50 percent of their food from local or regional sources by 2025.

“Looking at some of the crises we see with farm succession and dairy farms and climate change and health… we can’t just keep doing business as usual,” said Betsy Rosenbluth, the project director for Vermont FEED. “The ambition of our goal is really set toward what is needed to create the change that we feel is necessary.”

Rosenbluth said that Vermont’s network has monitored other states’ incentives closely. Based on the success they saw in New York—in their own backyard—they approached state legislators about designing a similar Vermont incentive; they’re hoping legislation will be introduced early this year.

“We need to have a lever that will support the cafeteria directors who want to buy more local [food] and feel constrained by their budgets,” Rosenbluth said. “But [we also need one that will] put pressure on the supply chain and distribution to move more local food into schools.”

There are also efforts afoot to boost these disparate efforts at the federal level. In June 2019, lawmakers introduced The Farm to School Act of 2019, which would increase annual funding for the USDA Farm to School Grants from $5 million to $15 million, and the Kids Eat Local Act, which would update school procurement rules to make it easier for schools to explicitly request (and choose) foods that are locally grown, raised, or caught. Both of those bills, however, were introduced as part of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, a process that is now five years late and that the current Congress has declined taking up so far.

In the meantime, food service directors like O’Brien-Wood are continuing to expand and get creative about local purchasing to take advantage of the state incentive as effectively as possible. One thing she’s excited about is working with more urban farms, like one that sold $600 in greens to a neighboring school last spring, with students then working on the farm, too. “It’s gotta be benefiting New York growers, and I feel like our kids are learning a lot about the local economy and local agriculture,” she said. “It’s connecting all of those dots.”

Top photo: Students eating school food at Hamburg CSD in upstate New York. (Photo by Nancy J. Parisi for AFT)

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. A well-written article that addresses the challenges we farmers face in supplying NYS schools, namely to get the distributors to list our produce and promote them to the schools as locally-grown. As customers of these distributors, the schools must exert their power to make this happen!
  2. Bonnie Acker
    An inspiring write-up of the determination in so many places to provide delicious and local food in our schools!

    But what about the meal on the lunch-tray in the first photo? The hot-dog was so very depressing and I couldn't see any colorful fruits or vegetables. Let's show truly nutritious meals when we talk about new and wonderful food for our kids and others!
  3. Bonnie Acker
    A very inspiring write-up about the momentum to get great foods into our schools and other places.

    But what about the lunch shown in the first photo? The hot-dog was incredibly depressing and I didn't see any colorful fruits and vegetables. Let's try to incorporate images of really nutritious and wonderful foods as we stay determined to transform meals for our kids and other people around them!

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