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USDA: Growing Farm to School efforts help to reduce plate waste, increase student participation in Healthier School Meals Program

 

USDA

 

WASHINGTON - Preliminary Farm to School Census data for school year 2013-2014 indicates strong farm to school programs can increase the number of students purchasing school breakfast and lunch, improve consumption of healthier foods at school, and reduce plate waste. Census data also indicate that schools purchased nearly $600 million worth of food locally in school year 2013-2014, a 55 percent increase over school year 2011-2012 when the first Farm to School Census was conducted, creating new marketing opportunities for farmers and ranchers in their communities.

The results are an outcome of efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to target resources to help schools serve healthier meals to students following the passage of the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Through its Farm to School Grant Program, established and funded through the Act, USDA offers grants to help schools and other eligible entities establish or expand farm to school programs. In September 2015, USDA released a report that shows that the grants alone have helped 12,300 schools improve nutritious meal options made with local ingredients for 6.9 million students, while expanding market opportunities for family farmers and ranchers in their communities.

"Farm to school is one of many tactics and resources that USDA makes available to help schools successfully serve healthier meals to kids. Farm to school partnerships have a proven track record of encouraging kids to try, like, and eat more healthy foods and creating new market opportunities for the farmers that grow them," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "Congress should act quickly to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to build on the success of farm to school and the healthier school meals and continue our momentum towards a healthier next generation of Americans."

The Farm to School Census is a nationally representative survey of school districts. Nationwide, more than 42,000 schools have farm to school programs, which operate in conjunction with the National School Lunch Program and other school meal programs. Seventy-five percent of respondents with farm to school programs reported at least one of the following positive benefits as a result of participating in farm to school:

  • Reduced plate waste (17 percent);
  • Improved acceptance of the healthier school meals (28 percent);
  • Increased participation in school meals programs (17 percent);
  • Lower school meal program costs (21 percent); and
  • Increased support from parents and community members for the healthier school meals (39 percent).

 

In addition to serving local food, farm to school programs often include food, agriculture, and nutrition education that emphasizes hands-on experiential activities, such as school gardens, field trips to local farms, and cooking classes. For example, students might dissect vegetables in science class, run farm stands using school garden produce to learn business skills, or practice data visualization techniques using plant growth measurements. All these activities contribute to an integrated approach to learning centered on food, agriculture, and nutrition, which independent research and testimony from teacher and school officials indicate can improve student's formation of healthy habits and increase the likelihood that they will make healthy choices. Recent studies published in Childhood Obesity and Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior reiterate the Farm to School Census findings, indicating that strong farm to school programs can positively impact consumption of fruits and vegetables, leading to reductions in plate waste.

Farm to school programs present economic opportunities for farmers and ranchers as well. Updated Farm to School Census data show that the value of local food purchases by schools increased by 55 percent in just two years, from $385.8 million in school year 2011-2012 to $598.4 million in school year 2013-2014. Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents indicated that they plan to increase local food purchases in the coming years.

Census results can be accessed online at farmtoschoolcensus.fns.usda.gov. School districts have an opportunity to review or submit updated information regarding their farm to school practices through November 20, 2015. Final Farm to School Census results will be released in early 2016.