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Healthy Farms, Healthy Kids: Evaluating the Barriers and Opportunities for Farm-to-School Programs

Executive Summary

Healthy Farms, Healthy Kids explores in-depth the opportunities and barriers related to school food services purchasing food from local farmers. These issues have significance both for small farmers and the local farm economies as well as for school children and the broader school community.

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. Globalization and concentration in agri-business has 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.

These problems have given rise to a new "healthy farms, healthy schools" or farm-to-school" approach. The Report highlights case studies of seven farm-to-school programs in California, New York City, Connecticut, Florida, and North Carolina. It also describes on-going efforts in New York, Kentucky, Iowa and Vermont to start new projects. Lessons learned from these case studies that can serve as general guidelines for future efforts include:

  • Forge partnerships with local farm organizations, farmers markets, and other individuals with similar goals of supporting local agricultureCultivate parents and community members to act as advocates for the program.
  • Convince the school district to set up an advisory body of parents. Build support for the program with school district officials, the food service director, and other policymakers.
  • Engage students by listening to their preferences, educating them about the importance of their food decisions, and providing them with the opportunities to make healthy choices.
  • Build collaborative relationships d administrative constraints. Focus on the long-term sustainability of the project.
  • Celebrate successes and publicize accomplishments.

The Report also examines federal policies and programs related to school meals, nutrition, market development and farmer cooperatives. It finds that government efforts to support farm-to-school projects are significant in legitimizing this arrangement, but are uncoordinated and have not significantly addressed the potential policy barriers and opportunities. Major policy recommendations include: Establishment of a fund that would provide districts serving school meals with locally grown foods with an additional five to ten cents reimbursement; Enactment of a policy statement by USDA and Congress that encourages school districts to purchase from local family farmers.Creation of a seed grant fund as part of the Community Food Projects program that would fund school districts and non-profits to undertake farm-to-school projects.Expansion of the USDA Small Farm/School Meals program. This augmentation should be connected to increased efforts and funding for the Department of Defense Supply Center to broker the purchase of local food for schools in a greater number of states than currently.Expanded federal funding for local food system infrastructure through the creation of a separate grants program.

The Report concludes that direct farm-to-school food service sales provide substantial benefits to participating farmers by developing new markets and as a source of additional income. All students, especially those from lower income families who rely on free or reduced price school meals, can benefit from improved nutritional quality and taste, as well as from related educational programs on local agriculture, nutrition, and food systems. Nevertheless, substantial barriers exist for farm-to-school programs, including additional food and labor costs, and administrative and logistical problems. While farm-to-school projects are in their infancy, they hold substantial potential as part of an integrated approach to decommercialize education, improve the health of youth, and enhance and sustain local food systems.

Download the report and view other CFSC reports on the Publications page.