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"Nourishing the Nation One Tray at a Time: Farm to School Initiatives in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization"

March/April 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

What follows is an edited version of a 13-page, February 2009 report jointly produced by the Community Food Security Coalition (, 202/543-8602), National Farm to School Network (, 202/450-6074) and School Food FOCUS (, 845/339-2824). Full report, with legislative history and mini-case studies from Chicago, Riverside (CA), NYC and North Florida, available from these groups.

Restore the Right of All Children to Access Healthy Food in School

School meals are a vital part of our responsibility to ensure the health and well-being of future generations. Improving the quality of school meals, and making them accessible to all children, is essential to our nation’s future. More than 31 million children eat school food five days a week, 180 days a year. Over the past 60+ years, school meals have helped our nation make impressive strides toward improving childhood nutrition and reducing childhood hunger. Yet in recent years, school meals are confronting new challenges. School food services are fighting an uphill battle to provide kids with healthy food. Soaring food and energy costs, the lure of fast food outside the school campus, financial pressures caused by tight state budgets and diminished tax revenues all stand in the way of food services being able to provide healthy and delicious meals to schoolchildren.

Like school food services, today’s family farmer is facing numerous challenges to make a living off the land. The farmer’s share of every food dollar has dropped to 19 cents from 41 cents in 1950. As a result, many farmers have a hard time just breaking even. Three-hundred-thirty farm operators leave the farm every week, and the average age of farmers nationally is 57 years. The U.S., with only 2.2 million farmers, now has more prisoners than farmers.

There is a solution that can help turn around both of these trends: farm to school. School meals form a potentially lucrative market, estimated at more than $12 billion per year. Farmers who sell to schools can augment their income and stay on the land. Yet today’s family farmer doesn’t have very good access to this market.

 Farm to school programs ensure that our children eat the highest-quality food available. These programs deliver food that not only nourishes children’s bodies immediately, but also knowledge that enhances their educational experience and cultivates long-term healthy eating habits. They are a win-win for kids, farmers, communities, educators, parents and the environment.

 Thanks to the efforts of social entrepreneurs, farm to school programs have blossomed on their own in thousands of schools across the country. Think about their growth potential with active support from USDA.

 In at least 44 states, students in over 2,000 school districts are eating farm-fresh food for school lunch or breakfast. Farm to school enables every child to have access to nutritious food while simultaneously benefiting the community and local farmer by providing a consistent, reliable market. In addition to supplying nourishing, locally grown food in the cafeteria or classrooms, farm to school programs often also offer nutrition and agriculture education through taste tests, school gardens, composting programs and farm tours. Such experiences help children understand where their food comes from and how their food choices affect their bodies, the environment and their communities at large.

Both the food itself and the experiential education surrounding it are equally essential to the success of farm to school programs in changing eating habits for the better. When schools tout the advantages of eating produce but don’t offer it in meals, their students are being taught one thing but shown another. Schools need to give students a consistent message, reinforced through hands-on experiences such as growing food in a school garden, visiting a farmers’ market, tasting new products, and developing cooking skills that will serve them their whole lives. These linkages give students vivid and lasting impressions of the delights of growing and eating fresh-picked produce, and help them understand where food comes from and how it is grown—knowledge that’s been shown to drive better dietary choices.

If school food can improve the health of kids, develop new marketing opportunities for farmers, and support the local economy, it’s a win-win for everyone.

The Child Nutrition Act

Every five years, an opportunity arises for all concerned with the health of our nation’s children to evaluate, defend and improve federal Child Nutrition programs. These programs were born in the post-World War II era with the goal of improving national security through improving the nutritional status of future soldiers. They were expanded in the 1960s and 1970s as part of civil rights struggles to reduce hunger and poverty. Now, in 2010, with our nation’s health security and the survival of family farming at risk, it’s the perfect opportunity to revamp Child Nutrition programs to enable more schools—and more children—to benefit from the healthy meals and educational opportunities that farm to school programs can provide. The current Child Nutrition Act expires September 30, 2010, and Congress is moving quickly to enact the next version.

 The 2004 Child Nutrition Act included one provision on farm to school creating a seed grant program which would enable schools to plan and implement farm to school programs, but it failed to receive an appropriation. In this new reauthorization, farm to school advocates request that Congress support a farm to school grant program with $50 million in mandatory funding. This could fund 100-500 projects per year up to $100,000 per project to cover start-up costs. These competitive, one-time grants will allow schools to develop vendor relationships with nearby farmers, plan seasonal menus and promotional materials, start a school garden, and develop hands-on nutrition education to demonstrate the important interrelationship of nutrition and agriculture.

 With the tremendous growth and interest in farm to school programs, the time is ripe to provide funding for farm to school and implement policies that include locally and regionally grown foods in the national meal program.

 For the latest information on the One Tray campaign supporting this work, and to endorse this policy platform, visit

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