5 Innovative Farm-to-School Food Programs

It's a new dawn in the school cafeteria as the USDA puts up grant money for fresh, local ingredients.

happy girl eating school lunch
Forget frozen foods. In these lucky districts, the lunch ladies (and gentlemen!) are working with an impressive array of ingredients. (Photo: Dag Sundberg/Getty Images)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

After the depressing news last week that almost half of America will be obese by 2030, the task of reforming the diets of our nation’s children became that much more urgent. Last Tuesday, the Institute for Medicine told us again what many have known for years: school is a crucial front in our children’s battle of the bulge. It is, after all, where kids consume as many as half their daily calories and nutrients, and where impressions are made that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

“If you don’t get them when they’re in school, you’ve lost them,” says Dr. Hugh Joseph, research associate at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition.

Alongside physical fitness and nutrition education, improving meals served at school is one of the most obvious first steps—and it’s happening.

The farm-to-school movement—in which schools partner with farms in their area to serve fresh, local products in the cafeteria line—is one promising aspect of childhood nutrition that appears to be gaining traction.

Funding is always an issue when it comes to school lunches, but a number of corporations and private foundations are putting up big money for schools and small farms to implement such programs, especially in areas with high obesity rates. And just last month, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service put out the call to school districts to apply for grants totaling around $3.5 million to implement farm-to-school programs. The deadline for submitting proposals is June 15.

For districts already engaging their local farmers, the positive impacts—from increased knowledge of veggies to better test scores—are pouring in. The National Farm-to-School Network now has liaisons in all 50 states, according to spokesperson Chelsey Simpson, adding that farm-to-school is a “win-win-win for children, farmers and communities.”

Here are five of the coolest, most innovative farm-to-school programs we could find, including a fish-to-school program we certainly wouldn’t throw back:

The Burlington School Food Project, Burlington, Vermont
Easily the most progressive city—Burlington has its own currency!—in a forward-thinking state, Burlington is sourcing a healthy percentage of school cafeteria food locally, running community gardens and creating food-centered school art projects. The district’s annual cooking competition, Junior Iron Chef, features teams of student chefs creating culinary wonders with local ingredients.

Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois
When Windy City schoolchildren sit down for lunch and chicken is on the tray, chances are the bird is local and antibiotic free. And this is true at more than 400 schools! With several programs serving local food to schoolchildren, Chicago is deservedly held up as one of the country’s best examples of what a large district can accomplish.

Greenfield School, Fairfield, Montana
In a single-stoplight kind of town, the tiny Greenfield Elementary School serves its 50 students as much local food as they can, despite the area’s limited growing season. “Everything we can get locally, we do,” said Sally Young, school nutrition director, earlier this year. “The children come in and help me process things, learning about food safety and cooking while they work. When kids come in and help prepare the food, they want to eat it, even Brussels sprouts!”

Oklahoma Farm-to-School
At the state level, Oklahoma has become a national leader in farm-to-school methodology. The state recently conducted a huge training to help cafeteria workers learn how to process whole produce, which is an essential skill for farm-to-school sourcing. The state will also soon release and distribute (for free) a farm-to-school cookbook and a video series aimed at educating elementary students about local food and nutrition.

Sitka Conservation Society’s “Fish-to-Schools Program,” Sitka, Alaska
Don’t think frozen fish sticks. Through its Fish-to-Schools Program, the Sitka Conservation Society is “integrating locally-caught seafood into the school lunch program, introducing stream to plate curricula, and fostering a connection to the local fishing culture.” At least twice a month, Sitka students see dishes like Caribbean Rockfish and Sesame Salmon on their lunch trays, which are, by all accounts, a hit. And despite this being the first year for the program, Fish-to-Schools has already been honored as one of the state’s top farm-to-school programs.

Is your school district in need of a school lunch makeover? Ask for it!

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