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Farm-to-School Programs Catching On
posted by: Alix | July 14, 2011, 02:52 PM   

With the movement toward healthy eating gaining steam among national advocates like First Lady Michelle Obama, the prospect of serving locally grown produce to students is making headway in districts across the country. This practice, known as "farm-to-school," is even winning acclaim from the Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for school lunches among American students.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the programs have gained popularity exponentially, making solid figures on the numbers of schools with the programs hard to calculate. "We know it's just snowballing," Merrigan said in a recent interview.

The National Farm-to-School Network estimates there are over 2,500 programs involving more than 10,000 schools around the country, which is up from 400 programs in 22 states in 2004.

At a recent Nashville convention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a new report about what works in farm-to-school programs, what doesn't, and how the agency can improve on serving nutritious and local meals to students. The report included over 15 schools districts, some of which First Lady Michelle Obama has visited personally in advocating for the practice.

Proponents argue the benefits of these programs are endless. First, they provide children with fresh, nutritious school lunches, without which many children might not receive adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Second, farm-to-school programs provide local farmers with increased marketing opportunities, which are especially helpful for mid-size farmers who are struggling to survive. "This is a real opportunity for them to increase the bottom line in their farming operations," said Merrigan. "It's about rural economic development."

Third, the program serves as an out-of-classroom educational opportunity to students, teaching them about the origins of the food they consume on a daily basis. "We know that children are very disconnected from agriculture...literally thinking food comes from a grocery store," Merrigan said.

The program also provides jobs in local communities. Matt Jones, owner of Jones Farm Produce in Gervais, Oregon, said the extra business he gets from the farm-to-school program lets him keep more workers employed each year. "These school districts are not just serving the fresh fruits and vegetables but they're also educating kids in the process," said Jones. "They're trying fruits and vegetables they never would have tried at home."

Deborah Kane, vice president of food and farms for Ecotrust, a conservation and economic development group said a recent study shows that that the programs saves seven cents per meal, adding up to $1.86 generated in economic activity for every dollar spend. And for each job directly created by their purchase of local food, another 1.43 jobs were created indirectly.

Pilot programs in Michigan and Florida will be implemented shortly, giving these schools more flexibility to use federal school lunch money to buy locally grown produce for their students.

What are your thoughts on the farm-to-table programs in schools?
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