This week my kids headed back to school, and I’ll be busier than last year, having been drafted to be PTA president. While getting to know the new parents at our school, I learned that several are interested in improving school meals and exploring the possibility of purchasing locally and starting a school vegetable garden. Our new principal is interested too. I myself have something of a brown thumb, but everyone was excited to hear that I work at the Department of Agriculture and had have been studying Farm to School initiatives throughout the country. I have been in close touch with USDA’s Farm to School team that will visit 15 school districts across the country to learn about their Farm to School activities.
When our agency, the Economic Research Service (ERS), put together the Food Environment Atlas earlier this year, we included information on which counties had at least one Farm to School program, using data from the National Farm to School Network. The Network maintains the only national data base of Farm to School programs. After the Atlas was released on our website, we received phone calls from programs that hadn’t been included, and this underscored the need to build a complete data base of these programs.
This month, ERS developed a cooperative agreement with Occidental College, a partner in the National Farm to School Network, to address the lack of data on Farm to School efforts. Anupama Joshi, who co-chairs the Network, will be leading a census survey in every state, contacting school food authorities with Farm to School initiatives. Our goal is to identify every school district with Farm to School activities, including school gardens, and ask them about what type of activities they conduct, how many farmers they work with, and how many schools in the district participate.
Many of our colleagues are eager to gather even more detailed data. How much are the schools purchasing locally? What prices are they paying? How much do school gardens contribute to the meals? Many community groups would like to have objective research on the benefits of such activities to persuade local governments to support their efforts. Once we have a comprehensive data base, our agency and other researchers will be able to use the list to draw representative samples of participating districts to examine a range of more detailed characteristics and results of the programs.
As the new school year approaches, I’m looking forward to a good year at our school, and to learning more about Farm to School programs across the country.