So, what is Farm to School, actually?
I know that seems to be a question with a really obvious answer: “Something is grown on a farm and sold to a nearby school for children to eat.” But that’s only a small part of the rich and full answer to, “What is Farm to School?”
And since October is Farm to School Month, I figured now is a great time to share a bit of insight into why we at Groundwork believe so strongly in the transformative potential of the Farm to School movement.
So, yes, “farm to school” does generally mean that a farmer grows something and sells it to a school not too far away. Looking deeper into that transaction, however, we see so many positive things. For starters, the farm family receives money, providing another financial pillar for the business. Since schools serve food every school day, this business is ongoing, something a farm family can count on, day in, day out, year after year after year. If there’s one thing farm families appreciate, it’s having something predictable among all the unpredictable elements of farming.
If every school in the United States bought food from local and regional farm families, they could tap into the $18+ billion that the federal government (not counting state funding) pays for school lunches and breakfasts each year. The school market could truly provide a transformative force for family farms, farmland preservation, and even, in many cases, lighter-on-the-land farming practices that smaller farms tend to use. Alice Waters, chef and founder of the iconic restaurant Chez Panisse, has been a lead advocate of this idea.
The transformative nature of Farm to School also is evident in the health of students. When students eat the freshest food possible, they are putting meaningfully more nutrients into their growing bodies and brains, truly nourishing them and helping them build habits for a lifetime.
When practiced to its fullest potential, however, a Farm to School program does far more than feed children nutritious whole foods. A robust program brings food education into the classroom where children learn to cook, to taste new foods, and learn about food and health. The education also often goes outdoors, too, where children plant vegetable gardens and tend to greenhouses—and harvest when that day arrives. Healthier food combined with all of that programming can lead to both healthier kids in the near term and also long-term health as adults, as students head into life with healthy eating habits. (Farm to school helps achieve goals of the “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” approach to education that Michigan is strongly emphasizing.)
If all schools in the United States served locally grown foods and coupled that with good food education and experiences, Farm to School could help address the tragedy of declining childhood health across the nation. And ultimately, as children live out their lives, that could mean helping alleviate the skyrocketing cost of healthcare and poor health outcomes that our country continues to suffer.
So, yes, Farm to School is about a farmer selling a beautiful batch of fresh produce to a nearby school. But in that there is the potential for a powerful, healthful, and delicious transformation. And that’s something worth celebrating!
Get the Food Party Started
Ideas for launching a Farm to School program in your school.
- Get a clear and accurate picture of what your school is doing in the Farm to School realm. Your school may be doing more than you realize, so it’s important to know that and give credit to those deserving—they can become your strongest allies.
- Find your school’s food champions. Teachers? Superintendent? Food Service Director? Parents? The people who understand the importance of local food in schools are those who will drive it forward. Team up!
- In Michigan, research how your school can qualify for 10 Cents a Meal funds provided by the state to help schools pay for locally grown food. (Because the first objection you will face is, “It’s too expensive.”)
- Consider funding a FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member. FoodCorps people implement a robust Farm to School program, serving in schools week to week. They run classroom lessons, help manage a school garden and greenhouse, conduct taste tests, and work with teachers and administrators to build a culture of healthy eating.
- Check out the National Farm to School Network website for tons of resources and ideas.
Jen Schaap, Program Director, Food & Farming