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The state of Farm to School in Minnesota and beyond, and what you can do to help

May 6, 2010

Things are coalescing nicely for Farm to School programs  right now in Minnesota and across the country:

1. School food service directors are very interested in finding fresh, local food for their lunchrooms as they join the fight against childhood obesity and promote wellness campaigns for their schools.  UMN Extension and the Regional Sustainable Partnerships just put on a series of farm to cafeteria workshops across the state to help food service directors find farms and learn about buying from local sources, which were very well attended.

2. Local farms are increasingly interested in providing this product to schools.  Schools represent a stable, large market for farms (although they usually cannot pay very much, given the average food service director is provided $ 1.30 per student per meal to buy food), and farmers are interested in doing their part to support children’s health and wellness.

3. Parents are taking note: they are demanding real, healthy food for their kids at schools, not the lowest-graded meat and lackluster canned vegetables which simply meet the USDA’s nutrition guidelines.

4. We have some great national spokespeople! Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, The Renegade Lunch Lady, and of course, instigator Michael Pollan are all bringing light to the multiple benefits of farm to school programs.

But many of the more than 2,000 farm to school programs across the country are fledgling initiatives that lack necessary funding to become robust, sustainable programs. Food service directors need training and assistance using fresh, whole foods, money to pay for the additional labor that is required to work with this food, and farms need fair prices for the product as they sell to the schools.

Right now, most districts are not given enough money to pay farmers what they deserve for their product. Food service directors constantly juggle budgets to get their students the best food they can, and don’t have extra money to buy local food, if it is more expensive. Recently I have been in contact with a few farms in Minnesota that sell to schools. They have noted that they know they won’t get paid very much from schools, but say that ‘somebody has to take the hit since schools can’t pay very much.’  Really?  We are going to build farm-to-school programs on the backs of farmers that already make extremely thin margins, work extremely hard, and protect and build our natural resources and rural communities in the meantime?

There are other challenges, like getting the schools processed (cut up, shucked, snapped, or shelled) veggies. Distribution of product is another challenge for local growers, and if they deliver directly to schools, they  internalize this cost, further reducing profit margins.

But alas, policy! The Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization in 2010 contains the “Growing Farm to School Program’s Act” will provide $50 million in mandatory funding for to provide one-time seed-funding for farm to school programs across the country, giving schools the help they need to start and build their own programs.  The bill is currently stalled in Congress, and there is controversy over funding mechanisms (some conservation and farm groups do not approve of using funds allocated for the 2012 Farm Bill). Read more including a legislative history here at National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. To tell your congressperson you support the bill, please call the Congressional Switchboard at 202-225-3121 and tell them where you live, or go to Congress.org and type in your zip code.

This Monday, May 3,  40 national agriculture, health, and food business organizations delivered a letter to House and Senate Congressional leaders urging them to support the Act. Read the letter.

This $50 million is sorely needed to build strong farm to school networks acorss the country. This bill won’t fix the ongoing issue of how to provide affordable, local food while paying farmers a fair price, but it will help schools build the necessary infrastructure and skills to create sustainable farm-to-school programs so they can buy more local food for years to come. It’s a good start.

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