The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is awarding more than $4.5 million in a first-ever series of grants that connect school cafeterias with local farms.
The grants will support programs that cover 3,200 schools spanning 37 states and the District of Columbia, affecting more than 1.75 million students.
"When schools buy food from nearby producers, their purchasing power helps create local jobs and economic benefits, particularly in rural agricultural communities," says Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary at USDA. "Evidence also suggests that when kids understand more about where food comes from and how it is produced, they are more likely to make healthy eating choices."
The grants will fund a broad range of activities including school gardens, field trips to local farms, cooking classes and solutions to some of local agriculture's biggest challenges - distribution and seasonality.
And they will increase market opportunities for producers and food businesses, such as food processors, manufacturers and distributors.
For example, the Lawrence County District in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas will use grant funds to coordinate with other school districts to aggregate buying power and attract new producers to the school food service market.
City Seed in New Haven, Connecticut will receive $98,100 to hire a procurement specialist to increase the amount of regionally grown produce available to the city's 20,900 public school students – nearly 80% of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.
The Weld County School District 6 in Greeley, Colorado, which already has a strong farm-to-school program, is receiving $83,800 to expand kitchen facilities for processing and freezing – which will help make local produce available year-round.
Des Moines Municipal Schools in New Mexico already buys 100% locally produced beef from cattle farmers and will use grant funds to diversify that to the complete menu by developing relationships with local fruit and vegetable producers.
Here's how the funding breaks down:
* 25 programs create jobs by hiring new farm to school coordinators (like the New Haven example), and 43 projects support and maintain existing staff.
* 31 grants support food hubs, or faciliate partnerships with mainline distributors. In California, for example, the Community Alliance of Family Farmers will work with a local distributor to create a new line of local produce, making it easier for schools to source products through current distribution channels.
* 44 projects will result in menu items, such as a Lake County Community Development Corporation plan in Montana, to coordinate with regional lentil farmers to procure protein and fiber rich lentil patties.
* 47 awards will focus on educating farmers and ranchers about the school food market. Washington State's Department of Agriculture, will bring agricultural producers and school food service directors together to tour the state to learn about agricultural specialties, identify opportunities for partnership, and solidify regional networks.
*50 projects will support hands-on learning, such as field trips to farms and creation of school gardens. For example, The Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education will coordinate tours of nearby farms for its 35 school partners, serving nearly 21,000 students.
The Farm-to-School program is made possible through The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 passed by President Obama, and advocated strongly by Michelle Obama as part of her crusade to fight childhood obesity. The law amends Section 18 of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act to provide assistance for initiatives that improve access to local foods in eligible schools.
Farm to School is one component of USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, launched in 2009 to coordinate work on local and regional food systems and create new opportunities for farmers, ranchers, consumers and rural communities. An interactive view of USDA programs that support local and regional foods, including farm to school and farm to institution, is available in the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass. The KYF Compass consists of an interactive map of USDA-supported local and regional food projects and an accompanying guide to our programs and results on the ground. In October, the map was expanded and now includes projects from nine other federal agencies.
Last month, two groups joined to create an national distribution system that connects local producers with regional economies: