Farm to School Programs Are Finally Making Inroads on Capitol Hill | Civil Eats

Farm to School Programs Are Finally Making Inroads on Capitol Hill

With no fewer than five federal bills connecting schools to local farms, the latest Farm to School Policy Handbook documents the maturation of a national movement.

cafeteria workers serve farm to school produce to students to improve their nutrition and support local farmers

The farm to school movement (F2S) came about in the 1990s amid rising concerns about the amount of processed food turning up in school meals. In many people’s minds, it is indelibly linked to Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project, which started alongside farm to school in 1995, to give kids a chance to grow their own vegetables in a school garden, sample similar produce in the cafeteria, and develop a liking for the carrots, tomatoes, and green beans they might not have access to at home. Since its early years, F2S has expanded into a more ambitious effort to increase local food purchasing at schools and childcare centers to not only improve childhood nutrition, but create stable markets for local farmers as well.

Since 2011, researchers at the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) and the Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) have issued a report after every other legislative session on the policy efforts—which range widely, depending on the state, locality, or school district—related to getting food directly from farms to schools, tapping into data dating back to 2002. In July, the group released the latest update to their comprehensive State Farm to School Policy Handbook.

The handbook shows that in the years since the first F2S policies began bubbling into existence, school districts and states have figured out myriad ways to start or expand fresh, local food programs using creative funding and legislative strategies to stretch well beyond the Edible Schoolyard models. By tracking every bill that has been introduced in each state, and whether it’s passed or failed, and why, the handbook is designed to help educators and others determine the tactics that might work best in their own regions.

The handbook also makes clear that F2S practitioners have begun connecting the dots on the interrelated benefits of local procurement, the need for which COVID only highlighted this past year-and-a-half, including improved racial equity in childhood nutrition, shorter and more stable supply chains, more stable economic growth for farmers, and more resilient families and communities.

A Growing Movement

Though the F2S movement has been around for several decades, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 created the Farm to School Grant Program, which provides $5 million in annual federal funding to state, local, and regional organizations to build or expand F2S programming.

The Act helped significantly raise the number of farm-to-school initiatives across the country—by 430 percent between 2006 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with a 58 percent increase in participating schools between 2015 and 2019, and an 81 percent increase in the number of students participating.

“Farm to school has grown and grown, and it’s become a big presence on Capitol Hill,” says Lihlani Nelson, associate director of CAFS, who worked on the policy handbook.

In fact, the initiative stands to benefit directly from five bills included in the upcoming Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), under which Congress updates federal child-focused nutrition laws: 1. The Farm to School Act of 2021, which would triple F2S funding; 2. the Kids Eat Local Act, which would make it easier for school meal programs to source locally; 3. the Local School Foods Expansion Act, which would allow schools in 14 states more flexibility in buying fresh local food; 4. the Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act, which would create more F2S school educator positions; and 5. the School Food Modernization Act, which would fund cafeteria kitchen upgrades.

This proliferation of federal bills aimed at building on successful state-level F2S efforts shows not only the current relevance and popularity of F2S across the U.S., but also the ways in which it’s begun to be understood as a movement shaped by a number of interrelated needs.

“It’s not just about getting fresh food into local schools,” says Nelson. “There also needs to be a buildup of support for farmers, so they can plan and have bigger markets, and for infrastructure that can process local food,” for example.

As The Hill reported in 2019, 88 percent of school districts need at least one new piece of kitchen equipment; some “must feed hundreds, sometimes thousands of kids each day with nothing more than a freezer and a microwave.”

Poor kitchen infrastructure is an enduring challenge for schools, says Jenileigh Harris, program associate at NFSN, who also worked on the handbook. “Even if there are farmers near you”—and for some schools, there aren’t, which is a whole other challenge—“if there’s no way to process a meal, it doesn’t matter.”

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The new handbook shows that F2S has also increased its reach into daycare and preschool facilities, and it has become part of a national discussion about ways to broaden the procurement of local foods more generally to the advantage of families, seniors, and people served by institutions like hospitals.

“Once states start to think about local procurement beyond farm to school, it becomes a broader conversation, about [who else] can be part of the program,” says Harris. “New Mexico and New York have done a lot of great work around a farm-to-institution mindset, pulling in anchor institutions with huge purchasing power that make this an economically viable option for farmers.” At the same time, asks Nelson, “What about farm-to-college and farm-to-prison? How can we expand what’s been successful with farm to school to other institutions?”

A Focus on Equity

Those invested in F2S have started to focus more vociferously on equity, and researchers of this year’s handbook went looking for evidence of an equity focus in state bills. They found that 19 of 91 bills introduced in 2019–2020 identified economic, health, or racial equity as a motivating factor. Notably, some California bills (which failed to pass) would have encouraged schools to purchase from socially disadvantaged farmers.

The researchers also identified a need to learn from the years-long efforts of self-governed Indigenous communities, which have been interpreting farm to school in their own unique ways (a notable example is Alaska’s Fish to School program).

There has also been increased momentum in the F2S community around universal school meal (USM) policies. California and Maine both passed state-level universal meal laws last month, but the Universal School Meals Program Act is also up for consideration under the CNR; if passed into federal law, it would ensure that every child in U.S. public schools has access to free breakfasts, lunches, and snacks.

“That’s one of the biggest pieces for any reader [of the handbook] to come away with—that bills supporting USM are becoming increasingly important when it comes to equity,” says Nelson. “It reduces the paperwork burden on the administrative side and gives the opportunity for more local procurement that might not have been as easy before.”

Alongside USM, she has seen growing focus on “supporting workers all along the supply chain, protecting the environment, and consecrating animal welfare”—an interconnectedness that Indigenous communities in their own procurement strategies have long accepted as a given.

The Work That Remains

Despite much growth and progress over the years, the researchers say there’s still work to be done to support both students and local farms. Harris says there is a lack of studies that draw a robust connection between F2S and health, learning, and social-emotional outcomes—all important benchmarks as kids head back to school after having their educations radically disrupted over the last year and a half.

“We do see some [state-level] bills that mention those sorts of [assessment-based] motivations for farm to school, but to be able to say explicitly that it reduces rates of diabetes or other outcomes would probably help some bills get more traction,” Harris says.

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The piecemeal F2S efforts within some states—a bill here or there to support a pilot program, or a proclamation of interest in local procurement—might not lead to much growth, and sustained funding is often hard to nail down.

“Annual appropriations come year to year, then sometimes disappear,” says Nelson. COVID only exacerbated this problem, as budget shortfalls led to the curtailing of F2S programs in some places. But Harris says this lack of consistency is another case for federal legislation. Harris calls permanent F2S funding “the gold standard.”

Nevertheless, while COVID engendered “a lot of losses and struggles to make ends meet with school budgets,” says Harris, “there were a lot of innovations, too, and brute force in trying to make sure kids and families were fed.” Whole communities stepped up to the challenge, she adds, mobilizing YMCAs, churches, and anyone else they could find “to figure out, ‘What infrastructure and resources do we have on the ground?’”

It’s this sort of deep, impactful, and flexible thinking that may ultimately help F2S and all its interrelated threads find greater success—hopefully in time for the next handbook.

Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering food policy and agriculture, sustainability, and science for outlets such as The Guardian, The Counter, City Monitor, JSTOR Daily, Sierra, and Ensia in addition to Civil Eats. She’s also the author of science books for kids. Find her at lelanargi.com and @LelaNargi. Read more >

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  1. Long before Alice Waters was Bonnie Ora Sherk, starting back in the 1970’s, with The Farm, in the Mission District of San Francisco, educating young children from Buena Vista Elementary school, about growing and eating fresh vegetables and fruits. Then she started A Living Library, with multiple branches in SF and NYC, and inspiration that’s spread throughout the world. Many artists and educators and people now mourn her death this summer. She was a visionary and someone who inspired people worldwide.

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