By Alex Gladu, Independent We Stand
Students and teachers may have their eyes set on summer, but schools seem to have their sights set on local farms. Through a growing “farm to school” movement, local schools are increasingly sourcing cafeteria staples from local growers, educating students about agriculture and cultivating school gardens. The results include healthier school lunches, more engaged communities and millions of dollars for local reinvestment.
The farm to school initiative is a joint effort by government agencies, local school districts and advocacy groups to bring more local foods into schools and teach students where their food comes from. The federal Farm to School program was created in 2010 as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which, in part, directed the secretary of education to increase local schools’ access to local food. Formally, the federal program is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but it requires the participation of local schools, local growers and other passionate organizations in order to be successful.
The farm to school program provides funding for schools to procure fruits, vegetables, meats and other foods from local sources. It also encourages schools to teach students about the agricultural industry and to show them where their food comes from. In turn, students can eat healthy, local foods while in school, and then get to know the local growers who make it all possible through field trips and other relevant events. Local schools are also encouraged to set up school gardens, where students can learn the value of food production for themselves.
In 2015, the USDA reported that more than 42,000 schools in more than 5,000 school districts were a part of the Farm to School program. The program has invested some $789 million into local communities through procurement and educational initiatives. To put things in perspective, that’s nearly half of all public schools participating and more than $1billion in local economic activity generated.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 also issued updated nutrition standards for public schools. According to the USDA, the Farm to School program has helped schools across the country meet these nutrition standards. For instance, swapping instant potatoes for local, fresh potatoes has helped one Alaska school district meet the government’s sodium requirements. Farm to School has also helped school districts lower the costs of providing school lunches and increased participation in school meals.
For farmers, the Farm to School program doesn’t just help them foster new business opportunities with local schools. The USDA also offers farmers and ranchers grants for farmers market involvement, sustainable agriculture research and local food promotion. The idea is to give local farmers the resources they need to be solid allies for the schools and educational systems they serve in their communities.
In a relatively short amount of time, the USDA’s Farm to School program has grown to support farmers and schools across the country. In turn, the program benefits entire communities, teaching future generations to eat healthy and investing in families that feed them.
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