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USDA Releases First Farm to School Evaluation

Efforts to serve local food in schools are expanding nationwide, but creating a market between small farms and school districts still poses many challenges, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s first report on farm-to-school initiatives.

vegforschools-featured.jpgOver the past year, a team of nine government representatives visited 15 school districts operating farm to school programs to determine how these types of projects can be strengthened and repeated in other regions.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced the group’s findings at the School Nutrition Association National Convention in Nashville last week.

“Farm to school programs are a great way to bring more fresh, local produce into school cafeterias and support local farmers as well,” said Merrigan. “Many schools are also using Farm to School programs to teach students where their food comes from through nutrition education.”

The Farm to School Team was established by USDA late in 2009 as part of the agency’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, whose goal is to help rural communities keep the wealth they generate.

The team found that both farmers and school administrators are eager to expose students to fresh, local meat and produce and have formed partnerships to achieve this end.

However many obstacles make connecting local food to local kids a difficult proposition. Local supply chains are often not equipped to handle such large transactions. Small farm owners are concerned that they won’t be able to supply enough product to meet the needs of school cafeterias.

But, the report says, “School food service directors were quick to point out that they did not expect … local farmers to completely replace their traditional food supply chains,” a fact that demonstrates the districts’ commitments to making these programs work.

The biggest difficulty reported by farmers and schools alike was seasonality. Many produce items, such as tomatoes, squash and berries are grown in the summer when school is not in session, and most small farms don’t have the capacity to process and freeze large quantities of fruits and vegetables for storage.

Farmers said they would be willing to extend their growing seasons by using greenhouses or hoophouses, but will require extra funds to do so.

Another issue raised by school directors was food safety. Local food programs introduce more fresh produce and meats into school cafeterias, meaning that both producers and kitchen staff must take extreme precaution in how food is handled.

Food service staff are particularly concerned about this aspect of the program, as they feel unqualified to determine whether a farm is using safe growing practices. Farmers in turn often cannot afford the Good Agrictultural Practices (GAPs) certification necessary to prove that they are following the safest procedures.

And many school kitchens are not experienced in handling raw meat, as they are accustomed to reheating precooked food that has been prepared elsewhere.

“Everyone is concerned about food safety, and this topic is especially important to school food service directors and … employees who are responsible for feeding thousands of children each day,” said USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which along with the Agricultural Marketing Service oversees USDA’s contribution to farm to school initiatives.

The report recommends that school food service providers contact their local extension office, health department and universities to educate themselves on Good Agricultral Practices guidelines and safe food handling techniques, and that schools include a self-assessment tool for farmers to complete as a self-audit as part of the contracting process.

“Food safety concerns regarding locally procured foods can be addressed with education and training for all partners in the supply chain,” FNS said in an e-mailed statement to Food Safety News.

Despite the hurdles involved in providing regional food to schools, those involved in these enterprises are committed to making them work, the report found.

“There are a lot of barriers, but none of them are insurmountable. What this shows me is that there really is a pathway forward to expand farm to school in a big way,” said Merrigan in an interview with Civil Eats. “None of the barriers in this report are deal breakers.”

In addition to supporting the local economy, the program is a way to help combat childhood obesity by providing more nutritious options to children and teaching them how to make healthier choices.

“The overall school environment is fundamental to shaping children’s eating habits, food choices, physical activity and ultimate healthy lifestyle,” Food and Nutrition Service told Food Safety News. “Providing and encouraging the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is vital to combating the obesity epidemic … Expansion in Farm to School, along with nutrition and agriculture education, could improve the eating habits of school-aged children.”

Education is another key piece of farm to school efforts stressed by the report, which emphasizes that knowing where food comes from gets children more involved in and excited about food choices.

One Rhode Island school district has created farmer trading cards that identify farmers and what they provide for the school.

A physical education teacher in Oklahoma’s Morrison School District has written songs with accompanying dances to teach children about fresh food and where it comes from.
Several districts provide information about the local food they are serving via menus and morning announcements.

“I think it’s really important for kids to get reconnected to agriculture,” Merrigan told Civil Eats. “Too many Americans are far removed from how their food is produced, and by whom, and they have a lot of questions,” she says. 

Next year, additional funding for USDA farm to school initiatives will become available thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which provides funds for farm to school grants.

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    Costly for us and risky for our kids as it’s turning out to be, this little USDA sponsored demonstration to placate locovore ‘alternative farming’ dreamers is already very instructive.
    See, it’s gonna require successful demonstrations of these loopy ‘alternatives’ on a practical commercial scale if they are ever to be adopted. Instead of talking and theorizing, just SHOW us how well these things work and we will all be doing it in no time at all. So, this unfolding fiasco is enlightening for all of us…
    “The biggest difficulty reported by farmers and schools alike was seasonality.”
    What? There are seasons?? Oh, crap, locovores never told us about that. How long has this seasonality thing been goin’ on, is it something new they’ve invented? Can we get it repealed in Congress?
    .
    “The report recommends that school food service providers contact their local extension office, health department and universities to educate themselves on Good Agricultral Practices guidelines and safe food handling techniques, and that schools include a self-assessment tool for farmers to complete as a self-audit as part of the contracting process.”
    Good luck with that. I would prefer schools dedicate their time to “educating themselves” in effective methods of teaching and assessing our kids’ learning accomplishments in math and science. Maybe something commensurate with kids in rest of the developed world.
    .
    “Merrigan told Civil Eats. ‘Too many Americans are far removed from how their food is produced, and by whom, and they have a lot of questions,’ she says.”
    No truer words were ever spoken. Heh, looks like Merrigan is one of those who is clueless about what really goes into making safe food actually turn up on anyone’s plate…3 times a day…365 days a year.
    Sure, these bold naive pioneering school food locovores are flailing around helplessly – you bet they suddenly have a lot of obvious questions, and more important questions they haven’t even thought of yet…and Merrigan is obviously the last person skilled enough to provide any valid answers.
    What a pathetic farce Merrigan is perpetrating upon us and our kids.
    .
    “A physical education teacher in Oklahoma’s Morrison School District has written songs with accompanying dances to teach children about fresh food and where it comes from.”
    Good! That’s real good!! Maybe we should just stop with this and call it a successful initiative?

  • skchgo

    With all due respect to Food Service Staff, as my mother was one as well BUT if they are unsure about food safety when dealing with raw meat and cooking the right way, etc then maybe we should think twice about who it is your hiring as staff don’t you think? Food Service Staff have been working like robots – take the meals out of the box, take the plastic off the meal and place the meal in the microwave for 1 minute, thats not a cook, that sounds like a robot. We need to think wholeheartedly about these children and what we’ve allowed to happen for over 30 years now. I remember never liking the food at my elementary school to high school, it was always absolute garbage food. If we stop and think about who this is for maybe then we can make this work. Its always about the children.

  • 1_c

    Or maybe we should teach cannibalism at school. It would be a lot more sustainable, until all thise kids are dead. .Doc Mudd couldn’t come up a solution to childhood obesity and local productions and consumption systems so I did

  • mike g

    Well Doc, I think you have missed part, if not all, of the point. It is your ‘practical commercial scale’ which has contributed greatly to the nutrition and taste wasteland that is our current school lunch. Have you had a school lunch? Do you think that some problems of scale are worse than counting ketchup as a serving of vegetables? Worse than high fructose corn syrup sweetening every nutritionally bereft canned fruit that is served to our nations children? America is falling behind educationally & dare I say that the lack of nutrition in school meals is part of the reason.
    The problems you identify with ‘alternative’ farms are really minor if they are given the same financial consideration as the monsanto/tyson food lobby. it is hard for small farmers to produce & process enough to make this program work because they are trying not to resort to the chicken house where the birds are never exposed to light, never move more than 15 feet, and are pumped full of antibiotics. They are making a faithful leap in production knowing that the corporate farm lobby may convince oligarchy politicians to stack regulations against small scale agriculture. The success of farm to school is not dependent on the size of the individual farmers, but the number. More small farmers making a profit would encourage more individuals to enter farming. As you may have noticed, there has been a mass exodus of farmers from the American landscape. Perhaps you think that is healthy? Perhaps not? A group of small independent farmers working together to reduce processing costs will greatly reduce this problem of scale.
    Do you really think encouraging kids to understand how their food is grown is a waste of money? Or is the corporate farm establishment afraid that kids may understand just how much profit is made serving tasteless low nutrition seasonless industrial food. They may also understand “what really goes into making safe food actually turn up on anyone’s plate…3 times a day…365 days a year.” which is huge government subsidies paid to corporate agribusiness conglomerates at the expense of education and all other government funding.
    It took a lot of years for agribusiness to destroy the small farms on which the county was built. So you may want to show a little patience with the growing pains of the farm to school movement. It doesn’t have the corporate cash & lobbying strength behind it. Good change takes a little longer than destroying things.

  • Zoe

    Mike – Amen to that.

  • Minkpuppy

    I see another unmentioned benefit to school gardens and ag programs besides providing food for the school cafeteria. Gardens and FFA are an excellent way to teach basic biology concepts, especially genetics. Remember Mendel’s peas?
    I wish my school had done something like this–our school lunches were horrible. I developed a severe hatred of spinach, meatloaf and corn bread because of the disgusting versions our lunch ladies served up. Still have trouble eating the stuff 25 years later.

  • Mr. President

    Doc Mudd is a paid astroturfer (professional troll) for Center for Consumer Freedom. Don’t mind him.

  • Doc Mudd

    Well, I’m not on their payroll, but have them send over a check anyway, Mr. Prez.
    Hell, they do seem to have level heads on their shoulders over there. Good common sense – that’s kind of a refreshing break from the tiresome obtuse enviro-foodie propaganda.
    Check ‘em out:
    http://www.consumerfreedom.com/