Local foods embraced by schools, helping farmers: USDA

Local foods embraced by schools, helping farmers: USDA

USDA points to Farm to School Census data that suggests large increases in school purchases of locally grown food

According to its latest Farm to School Census, USDA says farm to school programs in 2013-2014 led to increased school purchases of locally grown food and increased student purchases of school breakfasts and lunches.

Related: Farm to school programs working, USDA says

The results are part of a preliminary data release for the census, which USDA first started in the 2011-2012 school year. Specifically, USDA schools purchased nearly $600 million worth of food locally in school year 2013-2014, a 55% increase over school year 2011-12.

Vegetables, fruits and salads are laid out for students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

Through the Farm to School Grant Program, USDA offers grants to help schools and other eligible entities establish or expand farm to school programs. In September 2015, USDA released a report that shows that the grants alone have helped 12,300 schools improve nutritious meal options made with local ingredients for 6.9 million students.

Meanwhile, USDA said the programs created new marketing opportunities for farmers and ranchers in their communities.

"Farm to school is one of many tactics and resources that USDA makes available to help schools successfully serve healthier meals to kids," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.

Related: Vermont leads nation in Farm to School spending for local foods

"Farm to school partnerships have a proven track record of encouraging kids to try, like and eat more healthy foods and creating new market opportunities for the farmers that grow them.

The program operates under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is now up for reauthorization.

Farm to school census
The Farm to School Census is a nationally representative survey of school districts. Nationwide, more than 42,000 schools have farm to school programs, which operate in conjunction with the National School Lunch Program and other school meal programs.

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Seventy-five percent of respondents with farm to school programs reported at least one of the following positive benefits as a result of participating in farm to school:

• Reduced plate waste (17%);
• Improved acceptance of the healthier school meals (28%);
• Increased participation in school meals programs (17%);
• Lower school meal program costs (21%); and
• Increased support from parents and community members for the healthier school meals (39%).

In addition to serving local food, farm to school programs often include food, agriculture, and nutrition education that emphasizes hands-on experiential activities, such as school gardens, field trips to local farms, and cooking classes.

According to the data, farmers also are benefiting from the program: Food purchases by schools increased by 55% in just two years, from $385.8 million in school year 2011-2012 to $598.4 million in school year 2013-2014.

Related: Vilsack: Healthy school children important to economy, U.S. security

Nearly half (47%) of respondents indicated that they plan to increase local food purchases in the coming years.

Census results can be accessed online at farmtoschoolcensus.fns.usda.gov.

 School districts have an opportunity to review or submit updated information regarding their farm to school practices through November 20, 2015. Final Farm to School Census results will be released in early 2016.

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