Public School Cafeterias: The New Local Food Nirvana?

A census conducted by the USDA shows that many districts are participating in the department's Farm to School program.

(Nick David/Getty)

Oct 24, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The school cafeteria: Land of orange juice from concentrate, Lit'l Smokies sausages, pink-slime hamburgers.

Or perhaps not?

This school year may have marked the return of the ever-divisive finely textured beef to school menus, but a new census by the USDA suggests that the quality of ingredients stocked in cafeteria kitchens is far higher quality.

In the 2011-2012 academic year, approximately 43 percent of schools participated in the national Farm to School program, purchasing a portion of their food from local farms and other food producers. Purchases made by the 38,600 schools represented more that $354 million dollars invested in regional agricultural economies across the country.

The survey, the first ever conducted by the USDA, was sent to 13,000 public school districts, and 67 percent responded.

Some arugula-loving blue states had notably high numbers of school involved in the program—43 percent of California school are participating, and 64 percent of Maryland schools are buying local ingredients—but the Farm to School program is well established in states like Florida, Georgia and South Carolina too. Wyoming, where just 1 percent of the public schools’ food budget is spent locally and less than 25 percent of districts are involved in Farm to School programs, has what is by far the lowest participation rate.

In the same year, districts in just three states, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, were purchasing pink slime from the USDA.

Calling the program a boon to both student health and local economies, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement on Tuesday, "We know that when students have experiences such as tending a school garden or visiting a farm they'll be more likely to make healthy choices in the cafeteria. We also know that when schools invest their food dollars in their local communities, all of agriculture benefits, including local farmers, ranchers, fishermen, food processors and manufacturers."

Districts were asked about school garden programs too. The leading state in that arena? Hawaii, where 100 percent of districts have a plot of land where students can learn about growing food.