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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