USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack Tuesday emphasized the Farm to School program's role in creating economic opportunity for America's farmers and ranchers during National Farm to School month.
According to USDA's first-ever Farm to School Census, in school year 2011-2012, schools participating in farm to school activities purchased and served over $350 million in local food, with more than half of participating schools planning to purchase even more local foods in future school years.
Forty-three percent of public school districts across the country reported having an existing farm to school program in place, with another 13% of school districts surveyed committed to launching a farm to school program in the near future.
Interest in local products spans the school meal tray, with fruits, vegetables, and milk topping the list of local products currently offered in schools across the country, while census respondents indicate an interest in local plant-based proteins, grains and flour, and meat and poultry in the future.
"An investment in the health of America's students through farm to school activities is also an investment in the health of local economies," Vilsack said in a press statement.
"We know that when students have experiences such as tending a school garden or visiting a farm they'll be more likely to make healthy choices in the cafeteria. We also know that when schools invest their food dollars in their local communities, all of agriculture benefits, including local farmers, ranchers, fishermen, food processors and manufacturers."
Vilsack added that through the farm to school efforts, schools continue to enhance the health of the school food environment, meet the new meal standards implemented last school year and demonstrate the role local food can play in school meals.
Census results can be accessed online. School districts that missed the opportunity earlier in the year to respond can submit information regarding farm to school practices through November 30, 2013.
USDA's Farm to School Program is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. In mid-November, USDA will announce approximately $5 million in FY2014 Farm to School grants.