Farm-to-School: Why We Need It and How to Get It

by Audrey Jenkins

Published: 7/06/17, Last updated: 1/22/24

Nine out of ten Americans support farm-to-school programs that teach students about food and source locally-farmed ingredients; these programs are one of the best ways to foster healthy diets for kids while boosting access to fresh, local food for everyone else, too.

With over 30 million students relying on school meals every day in the United States, the quality of food we put on their plates is important — and can help us achieve a healthier, more sustainable society. As Helen Dombalis, the Director of Programs with the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) explained to us:

“It’s a true triple win — farm to school fosters healthier children while strengthening local economies and supporting vibrant communities. First, research shows that kids eat what they know; second, when schools buy from local farms and shorten the supply chain, farmers keep a bigger share of the dollar; and third, communities benefit from farm to school since kids take what they learn home to their families and local spending is reinvested in local communities.”

But these important programs are not yet commonplace, even as policies are forged to support them. Here’s why we need to step up and help local schools bring freshly farmed food to our children, and some ways to make it happen.

Why We Need Farm-to-School

Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables — and our country’s poor eating habits and related health issues start with how we feed our kids. What’s more, kids’ diets can impact their performance at school. While Michele Obama’s new standards are indeed changing school food (with support from 86 percent of Americans), farm-to-school programs go further by empowering students to take healthy eating into their own hands in two important ways: by putting more fresh produce and other local food options in cafeterias and by establishing food education opportunities to expose students to gardening and cooking.

Kids tend to be more interested in eating healthy food when they know more about it. In Washington, DC, for instance, Walker Jones public school procures local produce and engages students in taste tests that have led to a 90 percent increase in broccoli consumption, among other vegetables.

Everyone else benefits from farm-to-school procurement, too, including farmers whose businesses grow when schools source locally, parents whose kids eat healthier and communities where finding and affording fresh food can be difficult elsewhere. The wider impacts of farm to school programs are visible across the US, including in New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts, California and Colorado.

Policy Isn’t Enough

If we want better food and education for our kids, it’s up to us. According to the USDA’s Farm To School census, only about 44 percent of schools have implemented a farm-to-school program, leaving over 11.5 million students without. Although it’s clear that plenty more opportunities to source local food exist, many schools aren’t even planning programs for the future.

The problem? It’s not always easy to switch to local food in today’s food system. School officials often need to piecemeal funding for such changes, and for cafeteria workers, logistical issues like establishing new distribution from local farms, unpredictable shipments, improper equipment in school kitchens, current policies and contracts limiting local sourcing and students’ attitudes towards menu changes make the switch to local a big lift that each school has to navigate. Increased funding and guidance can help.

That brings us to policy. Two major US laws support farm-to-school programs across the country: the Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) Act. Combined, they establish the USDA’s Farm to School program, provide a mere $5 million in grants to schools going local and offer some alternative and geographically-based sourcing options.

Even with a new bipartisan Farm to School Act introduced in the Senate this year to increase grant funding to $15 million and with 88 percent of Americans in favor of increasing funding for farm-to-school programs, there is not enough federal support yet to overcome the logistical issues schools face. These laws don’t mandate local procurement or food education in curriculums, and schools can’t be expected to take on this role single-handedly. Some cities and states have their own laws that promote farm to school, but in many areas, individual school officials and residents have to lead the charge towards farm-to-school if they want to reap the rewards.

How We Can Make It Happen

Luckily, there are programs, organizations and funding opportunities around the country working to make farm-to-school a reality. Parent, students, school officials, cafeteria workers and anyone interested in promoting local food and community health should check Edible School Yard’s Network map and National Farm to School Network’s map for efforts in their area.

Here’s a list of some great national organizations that may also be helpful:

  • National Farm To School Network: The leading voice for the U.S. farm to school movement, providing information, advocacy and networking for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and preschools. Check their resources to learn more about what farm to school activities are happening in your region.
  • Farm to Preschool: It’s especially important for young children to have access to healthy foods during early development. Organizations are working to provide resources to promote farm-to-school for preschools and early care providers.
  • National Farm to School Month: This October, join the conversation during National Farm to School Month 2015.
  • Chef Ann Foundation: Provides tools that help schools serve children healthy and delicious scratch-cooked meals made with fresh, whole food.
  • USDA Farm to School Program: The federal farm to school program provides guidance and grants to schools going local across the country. Like many independent groups, the USDA also offers Farm to Preschool and Farm to Summer resources.
  • Food Corps: A nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who partner with schools around the country to educate kids about real food, offer hands-on programs like cooking and gardening and work to source school food from local farmers.
  • Edible School Yard Project: Builds and shares a national edible education curriculum for pre-kindergarten through high school. They “envision gardens and kitchens as interactive classrooms for all academic subjects, and a free, nutritious, organic lunch for every student. Integrating this curriculum into schools can transform the health and values of every child in America.”
  • School Food FOCUS: Supports a network of school food service professionals from over 30 large school districts.

Getting involved in farm-to-school efforts near you can include volunteering, talking to your local school boards or PTA or even by discussing opportunities with local farmers, friends and students. For now, the farm-to-school movement is up to us, but with all the resources that exist, we’re well equipped to take the lead.

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