Farm to School

Funding, Timing Continue to Challenge Growth in Local-Foods Movement

Nutrition education for students at Hawaii's Kualapu'u Public Conversion Charter School, on the island of Molokai, is a key part of the Farm to School Program, run by nonprofit Sustainable Molokai. (Progressive Farmer photo by Noa Kalanihuia)

In a place like Hawaii, getting fresh, local foods into schools year-round should be easy. But, even in a land known as Paradise, it all comes down to economics.

Consider the sparsely populated, largely rural island of Molokai. Here, a local nonprofit, Sustainable Molokai, sells and distributes produce from some 15 area farmers and runs a Farm to School Program.

It distributes local delicacies like papayas, breadfruit and pineapple to three of the island's four elementary schools. It also establishes and helps maintain school gardens, and educates students regarding nutrition and the benefits of eating fresh, local foods.

Harmonee Williams, co-executive director of Sustainable Molokai, said it serves as a vendor for the federal Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) for elementary schools on the island, and has been able to purchase 50% of the food it supplies from local producers.

The goal is to provide kids a fresh piece of produce as a snack at least twice a week and to get them accustomed to eating fruits and vegetables as snacks, instead of things like chips or cookies.

Still, almost 100% of total produce included in Molokai school breakfasts and lunches is imported. More produce could be locally sourced if school food budgets were increased. But, as it stands, it's cheaper for schools here to import fruits and vegetables from Oahu-based distributors, who buy from large farms on the U.S. mainland or other countries.

Williams said, however, there's real value in the FFVP, noting it "has been a real linchpin for the Farm to School Program," partly because of the educational aspect of the work. The snack it provides comes with nutrition education in the classroom aimed at encouraging students to try new foods. It's more effective than just handing a child a papaya when they may have no idea what that is.

"A lot of kids would never even try a papaya if we didn't bring it in there and explain it," she said. "It's that education that makes the program most successful at the elementary-school level."

If it's a challenge to get local fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren in Hawaii, the logistics aren't any easier in a state such as Wisconsin. Even with a high-profile commitment from the governor's office to the USDA's Farm to School program, the movement has struggled.

Wisconsin was one of the first states in the U.S. to establish a position for a statewide Farm to School program coordinator. The state touts the country's largest farmers' market, in Dane County, going back to 1972. But, even in this encouraging climate, the coordinator job has been empty since May 2016, and the governor's latest budget proposal eliminated the position, along with a 15-member advisory council.

This doesn't mean Wisconsin kids don't have local food at their schools. The USDA reports 49% of the state's school districts participate in the Farm to School program, and 10% of their total budget goes to buy locally produced food.

USDA NOTES PROGRESS

When the USDA adopted the Farm to School program in 2010, its objectives were threefold: connect schools with local farmers to get fresh, healthy foods into America's classrooms; help students build school gardens; and promote agricultural education in classrooms.

The agency reports to date it has helped finance programs to bring local, fresh food to cafeterias across 5,254 school districts and 42,587 schools. Between 2013 and 2016, the program awarded more than $20 million to 300 grant applicants. Grant money is awarded in four areas: implementation, planning, support service and training. Thirty-eight percent of schools or school districts receiving grants have been in areas designated as rural.

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Erin Healy, director of the USDA Office of Community Food Systems, said legislation that created the Farm to School Grant Program ensures funds are distributed equitably. "We want schools to have control and ownership of what the program looks like," she stressed. "It's dependent on the region and what grows locally." She noted "local" may mean produced in the state, or it may mean produced in the region.

The program operates in all 50 states, with participation rates ranging from a low of 21% of school districts in Oklahoma to a high of 90% in Rhode Island. Despite inconsistencies and criticisms, Healy insists the program is highly successful and is reducing food waste. That determination is somewhat subjective, as the USDA has no formal evaluation guidelines of its own for determining the success of Farm to School.

Healy said participation in Farm to School tends to be lower in the Midwest compared to on the East and West coasts, where homegrown farm-to-school programs were already in existence before the USDA came up with its version of the program.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR FARMERS

How farmers connect with local schools varies from one area to the next. Sometimes, connections are as simple as a farmer calling the local school to see if they want to purchase excess produce he or she may have available. In other cases, farmers work through local cooperatives or Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs), which reach out to schools or school districts.

In Boulder County, Colorado, organic farmer Natalie Condon sells produce directly to her local school system without any middleman. Condon, co-owner of Isabelle Farm, in Lafayette, said the Boulder County School District has staff directly tasked with managing the Farm to School program. They approached Isabelle Farms, and Condon said, "It was a great idea. We were already involved in outreach through our farm."

Boulder County schools benefit from a centralized kitchen where fresh foods can be prepped before distribution to some 70 individual schools. The school has a $100,000 annual budget for local food.

Along with the food, Condon visits four elementary schools regularly to talk about the "Harvest of the Month." This is a program highlighting a particular type of produce in the cafeteria and in classrooms. She also hosts free student tours of Isabelle Farm.

"We walk through the fields and talk about what's growing and the pressures of growing organically," she explained. "Kids help harvest and then take their produce with them."

Boulder County schools even turn farmers such as Condon into minicelebrities, passing out baseball-type cards monthly that feature the Harvest of the Month on one side and a picture of a local farmer on the other. Farmers often come to school cafeterias and sign the cards for kids.

"They get the cards, they meet the farmer and then they eat the food the farmer grew," Condon said. "It's a trifecta of exposure."

Isabelle Farm operates on 480 acres and grows more than 80 varieties of produce. Mostly, it sells winter squash, tomatoes and beets to the school district, as its peak harvests don't generally hit till the school year is finished.

"It comes down to timing -- the academic calendar versus the growing calendar," Condon said, adding cabbage and potato farmers tend to sell more to the schools because those crops are more easily stored.

FUTURE FOR FARM TO SCHOOL

Future funding of the Farm to School program remains uncertain. Child nutrition statutes and programs (National School Lunch Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) were last reauthorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. That last reauthorization was extended, expiring in September 2015. Without action, funding will continue at its current mandatory annual grant funding rate of $5 million. Demand for funds far exceeds available money.

Between 2013 and 2016, only 20% of grant applicants received funding.

In addition to increased funding, various bills during the last two years have called for expanding the program to preschools, after-school programs and summer food-program service sites. There have been calls to increase outreach to beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers, as well, and to reduce regulatory barriers that often stand in the way of farms selling directly to schools. Some school districts, for example, have regulations preventing them from buying directly from individual producers, forcing them to go through distributors. Other farms, even when they can sell directly to schools, find the payback too small; or, as with Colorado's Isabelle Farm, the school year doesn't coincide well with harvest season.

But, there's more than market behind the commitment producers such as Condon have made to their local schools. She notes that while only a tiny percentage of her farm's harvest goes to the local school district, and it's not really a direct moneymaker, she likes being able to give back and establish relationships with customers.

"We don't have that connection with most retail outlets," she said. "Anytime you can make a direct connection with the kids, it's great. I think when it happens on the farm, that's even better."

PASS THE CARROTS

Getting schools to buy fresh and local fruits and vegetables and, then, getting kids to eat them can be challenging. Here are tips to overcome their reluctance.

-- Education. "Have someone come in and do nutrition education," said Sustainable Molokai's Harmonee Williams. Kids are much more likely to try and eat new foods if an education curriculum accompanies it. Many schools have the farmers themselves do the education.

-- Scratch Cooks. Farm to school works better with school cafeterias that offer "from-scratch" cooking. If all the cafeteria does is heat food up for breakfast or lunch, it's going to be much more difficult to introduce fresh and local foods into menus.

-- Flexibility. Look to work with schools that have their own kitchens, flexible menus and flexible budgets, Williams advises. That may mean working with private or charter schools versus public school districts.

-- Connections. "Talk to people who are already doing it," Williams continues. She acknowledges most farmers don't have time to create relationships with the schools themselves, so she recommends working with co-ops or other local entities that already have relationships with schools.

-- Partnerships. Often, neither schools nor farmers are set up to manage these relationships alone. Consider establishing community partnerships between several schools or districts, and cooperatives of farmers. Look for support from local cooperative Extension agencies or organizations that provide local food. This collaboration can mean the difference between success and failure.

For More Information:

-- For your state's contact on the National Farm to School Network: www.farmtoschool.org

-- Isabelle Farm: www.isabellefarm.com

-- Sustainable Molokai: www.sustainablemolokai.org

-- Track Child Nutrition Funding: www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R44373.html#_Toc483314824

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