By Brittany Jablonsky, NFU government relations representative
This past week, Oct. 10-14, we celebrated National School Lunch Week under the theme, “School Lunch — Let’s Grow Healthy.” For family farmers, there’s no greater illustration of this theme than recognition of the recent gains that have been made in getting food from local farms into schoolchildren’s mouths. The Farmers Union-supported Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law last year, reauthorized existing child nutrition programs, including mandatory funding for grants to school districts implementing farm-to-school programs and establishing school gardens. While the $40 million funding level is modest, these grants are one way to provide some support to the farm-to-school pioneers establishing programs across the country. This legislation builds upon another victory, a provision in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 that requires schools to procure foods locally whenever possible.
Although advancements in farm-to-school and other farm-to-institution programs are being made rapidly all across the U.S., we’ve still got a long way to go and a lot of barriers to overcome before these programs are commonplace. Schools need large enough quantities of fresh foods to serve all of their students, but small farms can rarely produce an adequate supply and many schools don’t have the resources to send a staff member out to build connections with many local farmers. In addition, schools often have specific packaging or serving size requirements that take some on-farm processing to meet. Small farms may not have the labor force, facilities, or food safety certifications to do some of this necessary processing. Not only do schools need money to implement farm-to-school programs, but they need the local infrastructure and supply chain to be created or already in place.
Despite these challenges, farm-to-school programs are a great way to build partnerships between schools and their local communities, support the local agricultural economy, serve children fresh, healthy food, and provide basic agricultural education for kids who may not know how their food is grown or raised. Celebrate National School Lunch Week and farm-to-school programs by supporting your local farmer!
For more information on farm to school programs, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service website or www.farmtoschool.org.