Can you imagine a fourth grader who goes back for seconds of fresh organic cucumber slices but leaves the chocolate pudding untouched? With farm to school programs burgeoning across the nation, this scenario is increasingly a reality.
The phrase “farm to school” typically refers to efforts to bring great, healthy food into school cafeterias by connecting schools with local farmers and food producers. At their best, farm to school programs improve student nutrition, provide agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and stabilize markets for regional food. As such, these programs result in more local, natural and organic foods being included in school meals and represent a great opportunity for growth in the organic movement.
Across the country there are lots of examples of organic products in schools. For example, in 2002 Washington’s Olympia School District launched its Organic Choices Salad Bar - a pilot program featuring organic fruit and vegetable choices, whole grain bread, vegetarian meat alternatives, eggs, and organic soymilk. The pilot was so successful that within just a few years every one of the district’s 18 schools had a similar program up and running. The program achieved financial sustainability by encouraging students to take only what they will eat, eliminating desserts from the elementary menu, and reducing waste costs by composting and recycling. Although produce expenditures increased, overall food costs have gone down and participation rates have gone up.
In addition to creating market opportunities for organic products, farm to school programs are also proving to be great economic development opportunities. In 2008 Ecotrust provided a $.07 per meal subsidy to two Oregon school districts during the 2008-2009 school year for the expressed purpose of incorporating more Oregon-grown fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed (canned, frozen, etc.) products into the lunchroom.
We measured the economic effects of the $.07 investment on purchasing by conducting an input-output analysis using data from both districts on all local food purchases. Input-output analysis uses a matrix representation of an economy (in this case, Oregon’s economy) to estimate the effect of changes in one industry on other industries and the economy as a whole. The results from this analysis showed that local purchasing by schools represents a practical and timely economic development opportunity – with, in the case of our seven cent investment, the potential to create 477 jobs in the public and private sectors and return over $100 million in economic activity to the state. Results also showed that every dollar spent by school districts on Oregon foods led to an additional 86 cents of spending in the state, and for each job created by purchasing local foods, the successive economic activity created another 1.43 jobs.
A recent study released by University of Minnesota Extension that examined the potential economic impact of farm to school programs in a five-county area echoed these results, showing a range of economic impact depending on the schools’ level of involvement—from $20,000 per year if every school featured one locally grown meal per month up to $430,000 per year if they sourced a large amount of certain products from local farmers. The analysis concentrated on foods most easily added to school menus right away and available from local farmers: apples, beef hot dogs, cabbage, carrots, oatmeal, potatoes, sweet corn and wild rice.
The economic development potential of farm to school programs in concert with heightened demand for more natural and organic foods in school meal programs represents a tremendous growth opportunity for organic food producers. Further, many farm to school programs include school gardens, which provide great opportunities for students to learn about organic methods.
Washington’s Lopez Island Farm Education (LIFE) Farm to School program supports a large organic garden and orchard on the school’s campus. During the growing season, the school estimates that 60-70 % of vegetables served in the cafeteria are from the garden. Teachers use the garden for math, science, social studies, culinary arts, and health classes and visiting farmers from Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture teach soil management, sustainable farming practices, and food preservation techniques in the high school’s Ecological Food Production class.
It comes as no surprise that there is also great support within the organic movement for improving school food. The Organic Consumers Association promotes its Appetite for Change campaign, which aims to convert school lunches to healthier menus, using locally grown and/or organic and transitioning to organic ingredients. And the Organic Trade Association recently requested that the Economic Research Service include a question for schools about the procurement of organic foods in its plans for a nationwide census of farm to school efforts. In a historic step forward, the recently enacted Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (s. 3307) includes mandatory funding streams for both farm to school and organic food pilot programs.
There has never been a better time for the organic foods movement to harness the synergy between its whole systems approach to healthy eco-systems and communities, and the whole systems approach represented by farm to school programs – supporting healthy food from healthy farms, giving children a sense of where their food comes from, and maintaining vibrant regional food systems.
Deborah Kane serves as vice president of Food and Farms at Ecotrust. Under Kane’s leadership, Ecotrust works in collaboration with a diverse coalition of partners to increase the market share of regionally grown, processed, and manufactured foods. Ecotrust places special focus on children and the schools that feed them, advocating for policy changes that make it easier to bring regionally produced food into school food settings. In 2010 Kane was named one of the “10 most inspiring people in sustainable agriculture” by Fast Company Magazine for her innovative work with FoodHub, an online directory and marketplace for regional food.