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Local Food Makes the Grade: Farm to School and Beyond

If you are a regular USDA blog reader, you’ve heard about the new Farm to School Census, which shows the national farm to school footprint down to the school district level.  With farm to school purchases topping $350 million across the country and over 38,000 schools nationwide participating in farm to school activities, local food is making marks in schools.

But who produces all that local food?  How does the food make it from the farm to the lunch tray?  How are farmers and ranchers getting the support they need to take advantage of this, and other, blossoming local food market opportunities?  What role does the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and our federal partners play in the local food system?

Our  Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass map helps answer these questions with brand new data on federal funding for local foods through the 2013 fiscal year, including last year’s  USDA Farm to School grants. Data from other federal agencies has been updated and new federal players engaged in farm to school and other regional food activities have been added. This includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant program which has been involved in farm to school activities in coastal communities.  New data layers include school district boundaries. As part of these enhancements, the search and navigation functions are also improved.

In 2009, USDA launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative (KYF2) to coordinate our work on local and regional food development. We wanted to create a one-stop-shop for navigating the myriad of programs and services that the USDA can offer this sector. This means ensuring that food hubs are aware of programs like Rural Business Enterprise Grants, which can help build systems to connect farmers and institutional buyers like schools.  Or strengthening new direct market opportunities through our Farmers Market Promotion Program.  Or boosting the supply of fresh, healthy local foods through the seasonal high tunnels program, which has created over 10,000 new high tunnels since 2010, helping local farmers extend the growing season and their market opportunities.

In 2012, we launched the first version of the Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Compass, which literally put USDA’s local food work on the map. We identified 27 USDA programs that have been used by communities to solve local food challenges and mapped that support.  By illustrating where USDA is supporting local food systems, we can better see where and how communities are embracing these new market opportunities.

Over the past year, we introduced additional data to the map, including information about nine sister federal agencies  actively supporting local food development – efforts like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program, which is helping reclaim land for raised-bed community gardens in urban areas,  or the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Regional Sustainable Planning Grant, which is helping communities like Columbus, Ohio, Buffalo, New York and Memphis, Tennessee successfully integrate local food into their regional plans.

National Farm to School Month might end as October closes, but as the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass illustrates, our commitment to local and regional food is a year round endeavor.  Take a spin through the Compass to learn about local food projects in your hometown, your home away from home, or a new community altogether.

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