First Person: Making Farm to Fork the Table Setting for America’s Schoolchildren

by Alan Shannon, USDA, guest contributor

Alan Shannon is public affairs director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s Midwest region, based in Chicago. Shannon’s responsibilities include providing information about the Midwest division’s extensive efforts to promote farm-to-school programs that aim to improve the quality of food served to children in school meals.

[Shannon is scheduled to moderate a panel titled “School Meals and Nutritional Standards: How Farm to School Programs Promote Healthy Eating” as part of the School Food track on Friday, March 20, which is Trade Day at FamilyFarmed‘s Good Food Festival & Conference. This three-day event at Chicago’s UIC Forum, which is capped by the Localicious tasting event on that Friday and a big public festival that Saturday, is the nation’s oldest and largest trade show focused on local and sustainably produced food. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the event website.]

Across our country, more and more schools have begun to source foods locally and to provide educational activities to students that emphasize food, farming, and nutrition. This movement to enrich children’s bodies and minds, while supporting local economies, is often called “farm to school.”

The term includes efforts that bring local or regionally produced foods into school cafeterias; hands-on activities such as school gardening, farm visits, and culinary classes; and the integration of food-related education into the classroom. Along with these important nutritional and learning experiences for children, the regional food items in these farm to school programs create economic opportunities for local food producers.

These ingredients span the school meal tray and include everything from fresh fruits and veggies to the wheat in the pizza crust, beans in the chili, rice in the stir fry, turkey in the sandwiches, and cheese in the quesadillas. Farm to school thus includes of all types of producers and food businesses, including farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, as well as food processors, manufacturers, and distributors.

USDA in 2013 surveyed more than 13,000 public school districts to determine the how much farm to school activity was occurring across the United States. According to our first-ever Farm to School Census, schools participating in farm to school in school year 2011-2012 purchased more than $385 million in local food, with more than half planning to purchase even more local foods in the future.

Forty-four percent of public school districts across the country reported an existing farm to school program in place, with another 13 percent of those surveyed committed to launching a farm to school program in the near future.  Fruits, vegetables, and milk topped the list of local products of current interest, while census respondents indicated an interest in local plant-based proteins, grains and flour, and meat and poultry in the future.

Obviously, farm to school is growing, with major benefits for children, schools, families, farmers, food manufacturers, communities, and businesses. The panel I am moderating on Friday, March 20, during the Good Food Festival & Conference’s School Food program will give you an opportunity to hear from farm to school leaders from around the country.

These leading voices including Betti Wiggins of Detroit Public Schools, Leslie Fowler of Chicago Public Schools, Deborah Bentzel of The Food Trust, and Rosa Ramirez of Healthy Schools Campaign. At this session you’ll learn about the importance of and opportunities involved with farm to school, as well as some practical lessons from two of the largest school districts in the country.

These farm to school practitioners and supporters are growing the next generation of Good Food supporters and growing a healthier generation of kids. Check out this session and you’ll see how they’re doing it.


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