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  • Writer's pictureSecond Opinion Magazine

School Lunch Revolution: How Local Foods Can Land on Your Child’s Tray

by Amber A. Erickson Gabbey

Thinking back to my school lunches, I remember chicken nuggets, pizza and grilled cheese with tomato soup. There were raw carrots that often had a strange taste and bright green Jell-O with chunks of mystery fruit. The fruits and vegetables were second rate, appearing at the end of the line, with the starches and carbohydrates dominating.  Fast-forward to nowadays: there is a shift in nutrition guidelines and an epidemic of childhood obesity. The general public is becoming more informed. The school lunch is changing.

One of the most rapid changes to school lunches has come through farm to school programs. Today, nearly 10,000 schools nationwide participate in a farm to school program where they receive some of their product from local farmers. While each local farm to school program operates independently, they receive resources and support from the National Farm to School Network. The network formed in 2007 to help coordinate programs at the national level and to provide a framework and resources to assist the local programs. The National Farm to School Network has a network of individuals and organizations in every state.

The Program

Each farm to school program operates a little differently, depending on geographic location, community involvement, resources and prevalence of nearby farmers. “Each program is unique,” says Anupama Joshi, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the National Farm to School Network. New or small programs may only have one food locally sourced. Developed programs could have as much as 70% of their food from local farmers. Many programs fall somewhere in between. “It’s an evolving process,” says Joshi. “There is always more to do and different ways to engage.” Vanessa Herald, Great Lakes Region Farm to School Network Coordinator adds “farm to school can mean any number of things: serving local food in the cafeteria…school gardens, farm field trips, chef in the classroom, food system and/or nutrition education, school farms …the list is really long.”

Although each program functions differently, the National Farm to School Network suggests four components: cafeteria food procurement, classroom or educational opportunities, community involvement, and school gardens. For the programs to be successful, students, staff, parents, farmers and the community must feel a sense of engagement and interaction in the process. Farm to school is meant to be a change agent – within schools, at home and in the community.  As such, the national network encourages schools to purchase not only from local producers, but local producers with sustainable practices.

Program Success

Because each program is so unique, it is difficult to gauge the success. Joshi describes the program as “quite successful” but says that success is dependent on who is leading the program in the school, how the goals are articulated and what success means to them. From the national network’s perspective, the program is successful if it focuses on nutrition, farmers and the community, regardless of size or scope. Farm to school programs have grown tremendously since 2004, driven by new interest in healthy foods, more talk about childhood obesity and the local food movement. “Public support for this kind of stuff is at an all-time high,” said Joshi. The whole food system is changing. In 2007, there were approximately 2,000 schools with a farm to school program. In 2012, around 10,000 schools have a farm to school program.

Outside of participation, another way to gauge success is through research and government support. In 2009, Wisconsin passed a Farm Bill that helped promote farm to school programs, including funding for state resources. Other states have passed similar bills and government and private institutions have provided funding to schools to implement or improve their programs.

While research around farm to school programs is in its infancy, a 2011 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that farm to school programs increased consumption of fruits in vegetables and knowledge about farms and healthy eating. Key outcomes concluded that in a farm to school program, students were instigating changes at home. They were asking for healthier foods and for more exercise. In addition, school personnel in farm to school programs are beginning to change their behaviors as well to further act as role models for students. Finally, the local economies in farm to school areas benefit greatly, with more money staying in the local area. In some cases, employment also increased. While data supporting farm to school is just beginning, the results are promising, says Joshi. With increases in school participation, government support, media coverage, collaboration with other organizations and research, farm to school programs are gaining in popularity.

But not all data is as positive. A study done by the Chippewa Valley Center for Economic Research and Development found that in their sample of 20 schools, only one was procuring local produce and only 0.06% of the food budgets were going to local sources. One reason was because the schools didn’t believe there was enough demand from students and parents.

Farm to School in Wisconsin

Of the nation’s approximately 10,000 schools with a farm to school program, Wisconsin is home to around 102 of those schools.  Being a large agriculture and dairy state, that is not surprising, but what about the Midwestern winters? Even in late fall, winter and early spring (the typical school season), options include root vegetables, squash and hearty greens, says Herald. Another way to combat this issue is by buying in bulk at the height of the season, when costs are low and production is high. Cafeteria staff has to get creative, through freezing or pre-cooking some items. In addition, weather becomes a great learning tool for students. Herald says students quickly learn about seasonality when their school garden is covered in snow.

How to Get Involved

If you are interested in farm to school options for your school, Joshi recommends the following steps:

1. Find out what is happening currently. Talk with cafeteria staff and school administrators to find out if something is already set up or if there is room for other options. 2. Engage parents and school staff and administrators. Start conversations and brainstorm ideas about school gardens, changes in curriculum, cafeteria options and other ways to build relationships between the school, farmers and community. Consider any potential start-up costs, such as equipment and staffing. Dream big, but also think about short-term goals. 3. Contact state representatives through the National Farm to School Network. Utilize their resources, understand what is working in nearby schools and begin discussions with interested farmers. For Wisconsin, check out the downloadable Farm to School Toolkits at Here, you can learn the basics of starting a farm to school program as a school food service employee or as a farmer. 4. Generate interest. The motivation to create change must come from those who will be executing the changes. Figure out how to get support from the farmers and/or school staff. 5. Do the business. Once there is interest and momentum, you’ll have to do the business portion, with meetings, contracts and schedules.

With one school at a time, one child’s lunch tray at a time, farm to school programs are gradually changing the way we think about school lunch. From children to farmers to the greater community, it’s good for everyone.

Amber A. Erickson Gabbey, MA, is a holistic lifestyle writer, grant writer and yogi.  She lives in Hopkins, MN with her life-partner, Erik.  She believes life, like yoga, is about effort, but then learning to surrender.

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