Federal Policy, Regional Impact

The Farm to School  Act of 2015

Farm to School may be a recent concept for policy makers, but the idea that school food programs should have the dual aim of ensuring children’s health and supporting American farmers dates back to 1946, when Congress passed the National School Lunch Act.  Upon signing the bill into law, President Truman stated, “In the long view, no nation is any healthier than its children or more prosperous than its farmers; and in the National School Lunch Act, the Congress has contributed immeasurably both to the welfare of our farmers and the health of our children.”

This week, advocates from around the country are descending on Washington to remind lawmakers of this very notion. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, in partnership with the National Farm to School Network, has organized a fly-in to advocate for the Farm to School Act of 2015. This bill would significantly expand the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, which funds initiatives to increase local food procurement for school meal programs and expand farm and food-related educational activities. Since 2013, the program has funded 221 projects, 47 of which are in NESAWG’s 12-state region, including:

  • West Virginia - Support for food hub infrastructure to connect farmers and schools.
  • New Castle, Delaware - Engaging students in menu development and food production for their school district, including farming at an historic farm.
  • Rhode Island - A pilot project to use fresh-frozen local produce school districts, alongside classroom, cafeteria and farm-based educational activities.
  • Pennsylvania - Support for food safety, product development, packaging, educational, marketing, planning, ordering and delivery support to farm and school food service partners.
  • New England and New York - A Farm to School Leadership Summit for practitioners and advocates.

The Farm to School Act would increase support for the program by tripling annual funding. In addition, it would fully include pre-schools, and after school and summer meal programs, improve tribal schools' access to local and traditional foods from tribal producers, and increase participation from beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers in the program. 

"Expansion of the Farm to School Program would be a tremendous benefit to the Northeast. Our region has been a leader in the Farm to School movement, particularly in terms of our collaboration among stakeholders across the food system," said Betsy Rosenbluth, Program Director at Vermont FEED and the Northeast Regional Lead for the National Farm to School Network.

“The ability of schools in Pennsylvania, for example, to support dairy farmers, and schools in West Virginia to work with young student farmers to procure healthy vegetables demonstrates the mix of farm to school strategies and innovation in the region,” added Deb Bentzel, Senior Associate at the Food Trust in Philadelphia and a participant in NSAC’s fly-in.

Jim Liebow, a food service director in Brockport, NY, said that farm to school initiatives have helped schools meet federal nutrition guidelines. “We have been able to meet [requirements for] reduced sodium levels by offering fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables on our serving lines. Moving away from canned vegetables is a simple strategy in meeting those levels.”

The Farm to School Program is incredibly popular, and as a result, significantly oversubscribed. Just one fifth of applications to the program are awarded funding, which represents a tiny fraction of the farm to school initiatives around the country. According to the USDA Farm to School Census, over 9,000 schools in the NESAWG region are engaged in farm to school activity. Thus, the changes proposed by the Farm to School Act are badly needed.

"There is incredible demand for training, technical assistance, and supportive dollars for communities to start or expand their farm to school visions," said Bentzel.

Deborah Dewan, the Executive Director of the Rondout Valley Growers Association (RVGA) in Ulster County, New York, agrees. “Here we sit in the midst of a fertile agricultural area and until recently, there was little local food served in the [school] cafeteria.” RVGA  supported the Rondout Valley School District application for funds to purchase a salad bar and connected the school to a local distributor network that purchases from local farms. This work was done without the assistance of a USDA Farm to School Grant. “There is so much more we need to do to build on this early effort.”

NESAWG and our partners are pushing to get the Farm to School Act included in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (CNR), the bill that authorizes and funds nutrition programs for children, including WIC and school meal programs. As the current CNR will expire this September, Congress is expected to pass a new one in the coming months. To learn more about the Farm to School Act of 2015 visit www.sustainableagriculture.net and www.farmtoschool.org.

photo credit: The National Farm to School Network