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.