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Serving Farm Fresh Food in Schools is Getting Big Federal Support — But Will 'Farm to School' Stick

The Farm-to-School movement is out to revolutionize the humble school lunch with food grown on local farms. But the path from cropland to cafeteria is full of complicated twists and turns. A new wave of federal funding is trying to smooth the way.

It’s a hot, buggy morning and Derrick Hoffman is poking around a densely packed row of bushy cherry tomato plants.

Behind him, rows of peppers, eggplant, kale and broccoli are still soaking up the sun, while just a few country roads away, bok choy and butter lettuce sprout under hoop house protection.

But in the cherry tomato patch, it’s already harvest season. Hoffman and a handful of farm hands are choosing tomatoes to pick – the ones already deepened to the just right shade of red. “Or light orange,” Hoffman concedes. “Because once you put a red one with an orange one, they all turn red.”

Hoffman doesn’t want them all to turn red too quickly, because once these tomatoes leave his 100-acre farm on the outskirts of Greeley, Colorado, they have to fit with the lunch service schedule at a local public school.

“These will go to Greeley Evans School District here just down the road,” he explains. “We’re five miles from their warehouse.”

In about a week, kids will be snacking on them in nearby school cafeterias.

Hoffman’s tomatoes are part of a growing farm-to-school movement that is revolutionizing the humble school lunch. When Farm to School programming works as designed, kids fill their plates with fresh, nutritious food, and local farm economies get a major boost, creating a more resilient regional food supply chain.

It’s a seemingly simple idea that has lots of benefits. Sunny Baker, senior director of programs and policy at the National Farm to School Network said the issue is truly bipartisan.

“Farm to school is really easy,” she said. “We call it a triple win. It's a win for kids. It's a win for farmers, it's a win for school and the community.”

But while Hoffman and the schools he works with represent the best outcome of Farm to School programs, they are hardly typical. Getting all that local food into schools has proven frustratingly complicated. And while up-to-date data on the reach of Farm to School activity is lacking, it’s clear that there’s still lots of untapped potential for growth when it comes to getting farm fresh foods into school cafeterias.

‘Fire hose’ of funding

Tapping that potential has recently gained new urgency at the federal level.

Since 2013, the USDA has funneled about $84 million to states for funding general farm to school programming. Then last school year, the department dramatically increased its spending for Farm to School programs. At least $200 million directly funds local food purchases and an additional $60 million is earmarked to fund related farm to school infrastructure, coordination and technical assistance.

Both pools of money give states lots of flexibility to decide how to deploy the funds in a way that works well for local conditions. And even more money supports local food programming in schools indirectly.

“We have been describing it as trying to drink out of a firehose because there's just so much money coming down from the USDA right now,” said Baker of the National Farm to School Network.

She described that investment as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give school lunch a head-to-toe makeover by integrating it into local food systems.

“One of the best things that can come out of this massive influx of money is going to be that we're developing really incredible examples of how this can work,” she said. “We’re learning what's possible.”

 

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