Monday, July 10, 2023

Farm to School: Improving Local Economies and the Health of Children

kid in cafeteria

Pictured here: Sixth grader Dan Wells digs into a tray of cafeteria offerings at Willsboro Central School. Photo by Eric Teed

On June 21, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Franklin County, CCE of Essex County, and the Saranac Lake Central School District (CSD) had been awarded grant funding through New York State’s Farm-to-School program. The program is focused on improving students’ health, by increasing the procurement and use of fresh, nutritious, locally grown and produced food, in meals served in Grade School cafeterias.

CCE of Franklin County will be initiating a new program, advancing a collaborative partnership between Extension and three Franklin County school districts, focused on expanding the amount and variety of local farm products used in school meal programs.

Essex County CCE will be assisting 14 school districts in Clinton, Essex, and Franklin Counties with local food procurement on a regional scale. That program will also provide monthly Agriculture in the Classroom and Harvest of the Month curriculum in those school districts.

Saranac Lake CSD will be increasing the variety of local farm products included in their school lunch program by increasing the number of partnerships they enjoy with local farmers. This includes increasing the variety of locally-sourced whole grains and legumes served to students, as well.

Credit: Christie Brewer; CCE Seneca County

Farm to School: A Brief History 

California’s Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is often credited with being the first school district in the country to initiate a Farm to School program. Called Farm to School, the District put it into practice at the start of the 1996-1997 school year. Similar pilot projects introduced around that time included Berkeley California’s Edible Schoolyard Program and Florida’s New North Florida Marketing Cooperative.

In 2001, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service began organizing farm to school workshops and pilot programs across the country, as part of their Small Farms / School Meals Initiative.

In 2002, Cornell University, with support from the University of New Hampshire, organized the first-ever regional Farm to Cafeteria conference. The conference consisted of workshops, plenary sessions, and discussion groups that focused on how grade schools, colleges, and universities across the Northeast could work with local producers and processors to use more regionally grown food in their cafeterias.

The 2002 Farm Bill authorized the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Pilot, later known as the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, to determine the best practices for increasing fruit and vegetable consumption in schools. Since then, several more legislative actions related to Farm to School have been initiated at both State and Federal levels, and the Farm to School movement has grown exponentially.

The Farm to School Concept

I like to believe that the farm to school concept existed long before the 1990s. After all, school garden programs have been in place, in this country, for well-over a century. In fact, at the start of the 20th century, there were an estimated 75,000 school gardens in use, at schools across the United States.

During World War 1, the Federal Bureau of Education formally launched the U.S. School Garden Army, with the catchphrase, “A garden for every child. A child in every garden.” The program engaged County Agricultural Extension Agents in training and support for 50,000 teachers, 1.5 million students, and the hundreds of thousands of parents who, more than 100 years ago, put more than 20,000 garden-acres into school-garden-production.

On June 4, 1946, President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act (NSLA), which permanently authorized the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

Twenty years later, Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act, stating in Section 2 of the Act; “…it is hereby declared … that these (NSLP) efforts shall be extended, expanded, and strengthened under the authority of the Secretary of Agriculture, as a measure to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of agricultural and other foods, by assisting States, through grants-in-aid and other means, to meet more effectively, the nutritional needs of our children.”

Nearly 50 years after the Child Nutrition Act was passed, the Child Nutrition and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) Reauthorization Act of 2004 amended the NSLP to encourage improved access to local foods in schools “through farm-to-cafeteria activities, including school gardens.” The Act required schools to set goals for nutritional standards for the foods that they offer, and for nutrition education, physical activity, and other school-based activities designed to promote student wellness.

Garden to Cafeteria

One way to bring the farm to school / table concept to students is through a Garden-to-Cafeteria program. According to the National Farm to School Network, school gardens are one of the three core-components of farm to school programming. (The other two are local sourcing and nutrition education.) Garden to Cafeteria programs offer students first-hand educational experience with growing, harvesting, and delivering fresh, nutritious produce to their school cafeteria, to be processed in their school cafeteria’s kitchen.

A small garden-to-cafeteria-based agriculture lab course endures at Salmon River Central School (SRCS), in Fort Covington. The class is funded by the Healthy Heart Network, in Saranac Lake, and is currently the only ag-based program offered at the school. Michelle Oakes, a former Future Farmers of America (FFA) student at SRCS, teaches the class.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.




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