USDA Finds Ways to Help Farm-to-School Programs

By Steve Karnowski, via The Huffington Post,

USDA: Farm-To-School Programs Are 'Snowballing' NationwideThe popularity of farm-to-school programs that put locally grown food on cafeteria trays has exploded in recent years—so much so that the federal agency in charge of school lunches is giving them a new stamp of approval.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the programs have become so popular so fast that her agency doesn’t have solid figures on how many schools are serving their students vegetables, fruits and meat grown by local farmers.

“We know it’s just snowballing,” Merrigan said in an interview with The Associated Press before her appearance Tuesday at the School Nutrition Association convention in Nashville, Tenn.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture used the convention to release a new report on what works in farm-to-school programs, what doesn’t and what the agency can do to help them work better. The report was put together by a USDA team that traveled to 15 school districts across the country and comes as officials, including first lady Michelle Obama, are promoting the importance of healthier food for kids.

“First, it is about bringing fresh locally grown food into school cafeterias,” Merrigan said. “So there’s the yummy factor, the good nutrition factor. … Number two, we believe it provides good market opportunities for local producers, particular those midsize farmers that are struggling to make a go of it. This is a real opportunity for them to increase the bottom line in their farming operations. So it’s about rural economic development.”

Third, she said, farm-to-school programs help connect people with where their food comes from, how it’s produced and by whom.

“We know that children are very disconnected from agriculture … literally thinking food comes from a grocery store,” Merrigan said. But many schools use farm-to-school programs to work agriculture into the curriculum, she said, transforming the lunchroom into a classroom.

Farmers who supply schools say they benefit from having steady customers, and they also get satisfaction from knowing they’re helping children eat healthier food. Jeff Rosenblad, owner of Happy Harvest Farms in Mt. Angel, Ore., said he gets great feedback from the districts he supplies with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

“The kids like it so much they’re eating (from) salad bars more. They’re eating watermelon, they’re just gorging themselves,” Rosenblad said.

Matt Jones, who owns Jones Farm Produce in nearby Gervais, Ore., said the extra business he gets from supplying schools lets him keep a few more workers employed for a few more weeks a year. He’s been able to sell to schools later into the winter because he has plenty of cold-storage capacity for the apples he grows. A lack of refrigerator space is a common problem for many schools.

“These school districts are not just serving the fresh fruits and vegetables but they’re also educating kids in the process,” Jones said. “They’re trying fruits and vegetables they never would have tried at home, so that’s really good for the children.”

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