This October, just like every other month during the school year, school menus will feature an array of products from local and regional farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. Kids of all ages will dig up lessons in school gardens, visit farms, harvest pumpkins, and don hair nets for tours of processing facilities. Science teachers – and English, math, and social studies instructors, too – will use food and agriculture as a tool in their classrooms, so that lessons about the importance of healthy eating permeate the school learning environment.
An investment in the health of America’s students through Farm to School is also an investment in the farmers and ranchers who grow the food and an investment in the health of local economies. In school year 2011-2012, schools purchased $386 million in local food from farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food processors and manufacturers. And an impressive 56 percent of school districts report that they will buy even more local foods in future school years. Farm to school programs exist in every state in the country.
For example, the Lake County Community Development Corporation in Ronan, Montana reports a 40 percent increase in revenues to farmers based on school sales alone. The Southwest Georgia Project, a community development non-profit, notes that “We’re actually seeing our farmers have hope. The farm to school program allows them to see an opportunity for a sustainable living for themselves and their families.” Testimonials in a USDA video released this week highlight the degree to which farm to school programs support healthy eating behaviors among children and provide positive economic impacts to local communities.
Strengthening local food systems is one of the four pillars of USDA’s commitment to rural economic development, and Farm to School programs can play an important role. To support the expansion of Farm to School programs into more schools and expand opportunity for farmers and ranchers, USDA offers grants, training, and technical assistance. Since the start of our Farm to School Grant Program in fiscal year 2013, for example, USDA has awarded grants to 139 projects spanning 46 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 16,200 schools and 4.55 million students, nearly 43% of whom live in rural communities.
Just this week, I visited the George Washington Carver Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia and the Virginia State Fair to announce more than $52 million in new USDA grants nationwide to support the development of the local, regional and organic food sectors. You can learn more about USDA’s investments at www.usda.gov/results.
At USDA we’re transforming school food and creating a healthier next generation. We’re happy to celebrate in October, but we’re going to be cheering for schools with farm to school programs all year long. When students have experiences such as tending a school garden or visiting a farm, they’re more likely to make healthy choices in the cafeteria. I see the change every time I visit a cafeteria; students light up when meeting their farmer. They are piling their trays full of healthy foods, they are learning healthy habits that they will carry with them for life, and they are learning an appreciation for the American farmer that they will carry with them their entire lives.