Making more fresh and nutritious whole foods available to children, and better connecting farms to schools is not just a noble concept, but a necessary and sustainable solution to pressing problems in the United States and around the world.
Childhood obesity rates have been rising in parallel with the spread of industrial agriculture, global food systems, and the increased consumption of processed and refined foods. Long-term consequences such as type 2 diabetes, pollution, and damage to valuable ecosystems, owe much blame to these realities. In the United States, these separate but related unsustainable practices tragically come together in the US school system, especially in public and charter schools in underserved communities.
What is the Sustainable Solution?
One clear over-arching way to address these issues within US schools (and globally, in reality) is to support the local food economy through education, awareness, and community-based farm-to-school initiatives. By getting more fresh, in-season and locally produced whole foods into schools, there is support for the livelihoods of local farmers, the health of school children and entire communities, and the environment.
The concept of farm-to-school itself has become more mainstream and is promoted nationally by the USDA in the National Farm-to-School Network. As with the increased nutrition standards of the National School Lunch Program that came with the passage of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, the national farm-to-school program is an important step towards a fully integrated solution to healthful school eating but is still in need of many improvements. Most importantly, farm-to-school programs should be better aligned with the philosophies of local sourcing, and be more accessible and economically viable for small-scale farmers and their aggregators to participate.
According to the USDA, currently 42% of US school districts have some form of farm-to-school program, amounting to more than 40,000 schools, and these numbers are growing. The opportunity is certainly there to join these positive trends and to help improve these programs through integrated and sustainable solutions that better support the local food economy.
Community-Based Integrated Farm-to-School Programs
Developing and implementing farm-to-school programs is far from easy, however. Each school district and individual school has their own set of rules and limitations, while already operating under significant constraints due to national policies and budgets.
On the other side, small-scale farmers and farmer cooperatives face tremendous challenges in an unbalanced agricultural system, and many still find themselves in precarious financial circumstances that make selling wholesale to budget-constrained schools unfeasible. These small-scale farmers are the ideal candidates to feed our countries’ children, as they produce the most nutritious and diverse produce with the lowest footprint. For many small farmers, however, without some external entities (be it non-profit organizations, food aggregators, subsidies, or some combination) to help bridge the divides and balance the system, participating in farm-to-school programs remains economically nonviable.
Thankfully there are a number of determined schools, farmers, food aggregators and organizations that have partnered up and are successfully implementing local and regional programs that are connecting small-scale local farmers with children that need their fresh whole foods the most.
One great example of how a farm-to-school program can be an integrated and sustainable solution for childhood health and the local food economy overall is a set of partnerships between rural farmers and a non-profit food aggregator in Virginia, and non-profit urban organization and a collection of public, charter and private schools in inner-city Washington DC. The Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, Virginia, brings together approximately 60 regional farmers, helping to open access to markets and logistics by warehousing, transporting, marketing, selling and organizing campaigns for their fresh in-season produce. DC Central Kitchen buys wholesale from the Local Food Hub and is responsible for the meal programs of 12 public, one charter and two private schools in urban Washington DC, including several schools in underserved areas considered “food deserts,” where fresh produce is terribly hard to find.