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The California Food and Justice Coalition

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Issue Paper:
Farm-to-School Programs
By Gail Feenstra, Michelle Mascarenhas and Peggy Adams


What is the problem?
The executive summary of "Healthy Farms, Healthy Kids: Evaluating the Barriers and Opportunities for Farm-to-School Programs" (Azuma and Fisher, 2001), succinctly describes the problem:

"Local and regional farmers require profitable and stable markets for their products. Prices that farmers receive for many commodities have dropped appreciably in recent years. [Commodity dumping has also compounded family farmers' difficulty selling to schools.] Globalization and concentration in agri-business have also reduced access to markets, and resulted in unfair prices offered to family farmers. In schools, an ever-increasing number of children are overweight as a result of insufficient physical activity and increased consumption of high caloric junk foods. Anecdotal evidence has indicated that adult-onset diabetes, rarely found in children until recently, has become more widespread. Schools have also reduced in importance the nutritional mission of the school meals programs in favor of practices that bolster the bottom line. Food services, in a financial bind because of reduced student participation, have incorporated commercial practices, such as branding and contracting with fast food businesses to achieve better buy-in from students. School districts, hungry for cash for extra-curricular and sports programs, have also signed contracts with soft drink corporations to promote their products on campus."

What's the feasibility for moving forward in this area? Costs? Precedents? What organizations already work on this issue?
Solution: Farm-to-school programs in which local farmers supply school food services with produce for the school lunch program. Often, this happens through salad bars, in which ingredients come from farmers that attend local farmers' markets. There are many variations on this model.

The number of farm-to-school programs has mushroomed in the last five years and they are receiving national attention and support through the USDA (Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service and Agricultural Marketing Service). The Small Farms/School Meals Initiative, first staffed by Ty Couey (with backing from FNCS Undersecretary Shirley Watkins), helped organize workshops and conferences on farm-to-school efforts in several states (FLA, KY, IA, NY). The USDA also helped organize pilot projects in Florida and North Carolina. Publications describing progress of the first pilot projects were also written and distributed.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District started an innovative farmers' market salad bar in September 1997. School Food Service Director, Rodney Taylor, supported by the Occidental College Community Food Security Project, [now the Center for Food and Justice] became the catalyst for this new approach, and a staunch advocate to other food service directors and the USDA. All schools in the district had salad bars within three years and the concept spread to the LA Unified School District. At about the same time, the Berkeley Food Systems Project received funding from the USDA's food program grants, with the intent to start its own version of farmers' market salad bars, coupled with the passage of a school district food policy to support the purchase of local and organic foods. The BJUSD currently runs 4 salad bars. In the Spring of 2001, Farm to School projects were launched in Ventura and Davis. Farmers' market managers as well as the Community Alliance with Family Farmers have been instrumental in helping organize new projects and link children with local farms. In the last couple of years, community food security and sustainable food and agriculture non-profit organizations collaborating with academic institutions and school districts have helped launch more projects in California and in every region of the country.

Costs of starting and maintaining these projects have been significant, although the exact costs have been elusive. SAREP is currently gathering data on complete costs for the Davis project and will design a fiscal analysis model to help prospective projects calculate their own short and long-term costs. To date, most project funding has been raised through grants.

Funding in California programs to help with start-up costs, a coordinator and extra labor has come from the USDA (IFAFS, CFS grants), the California Endowment, the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, the Wellness Foundation, the California Nutrition Network (through the California Department of Health Services), UC SAREP, the California Dept. of Education and other local foundations, businesses and philanthropic organizations. In the Santa Monica case, due to Rodney Taylor's influence, the school district food and nutrition services department has restructured its operations to make the farmers' market salad bar a central component of its operations. Through this restructuring and the growth of sales through the salad bar, they believe they will be able to cover the costs of the program. Most other farm-to-school projects have not had that level of support and have had to continue fundraising as they work to put projects in place.

Does the issue lend itself to campaigns that engage the grassroots, media and advocates?
Farm to school is a concept that the general public can easily understand and support. Parents and educators have played leading roles in advocating for these programs. There is great potential to organize many more parents, educators, and students to get involved. One challenge would be getting people to focus on statewide policy while they are really interested in starting a local program. The policy campaign selected would have to be able to show very clear benefits for local programs.

There are also many child health and nutrition advocates concerned with school food. The Strategic Alliance to End Childhood Obesity has been formed and school food is an issue they have taken up. Farm to school programs can provide a solution-oriented approach to the nutrition and health concerns of many advocacy organizations. We would have to think about whether or not to link a farm to school campaign with a campaign to end fast food in schools (or other campaign that challenged current food services practices).

The concept is a simple one for media to pick up and kids and fresh produce photograph so well!

What is the issue's organizing value?
Farm to school is a concrete example of making links between family farms and consumers. Parents and educators are likely to be the most vocal advocates because they have self-interest in getting better food in the schools. Out of this campaign, new activists for local food systems will likely emerge.

What are the policy opportunities?

  1. California should formally encourage schools to buy directly from family farmers.
  2. The State should provide seed grants for schools to purchase local foods. Funds would mainly be used for coordination, additional labor costs, and equipment. Three conditions for receiving $$:
    • The school enact a food policy;
    • The school agree to prioritize food purchases from local, owner-occupied farms;
    • The school agree to extend the program to other schools if successful.
  3. California should provide Bonus Reimbursements for local and state-grown foods. School districts would receive an additional 10 cents for each meal containing some share (X percent) local food purchased from family farmers. Estimated cost = $11.5 million/year in CA]
  4. The State should evaluate the impact of fast food and junk food consumption on school childrens' diets.
    • Contract with one or more academic institutions to do these studies or gather results of existing ones.
  5. Evaluate transportation and distribution solutions to connect farms and schools.
    • Contract with one or several academic institutions to do a study on logistical needs and solutions; and
    • Contract with an organization (preferably non-profit) to develop pilot farmer distribution networks in two regions of the state.
    • Provide incentives for farmers to develop delivery systems to schools

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