Farm to School

Farm to School is a program in the United States through which schools buy and feature locally produced, farm-fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables, eggs, honey, meat, and beans on their menus. Schools also incorporate nutrition-based curriculum and provide students with experiential learning opportunities such as farm visits, garden-based learning, and recycling programs. As a result of Farm to School, students have access to fresh, local foods, and farmers have access to new markets through school sales. Farmers are also able to participate in programs designed to educate kids about local food and agriculture.

Currently, school lunches are generally designed according to the guidelines put out by the USDA National School Lunch Program (NSLP). More than half of US children participate daily, which translates to approximately 28 million lunches distributed per day. The nutritional guidelines for the NSLP lunches are based on "Dietary Recommendations for Americans" composed by the Institute of Medicine. Its requirements are that a school lunch includes one third of the RDA of calories, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron, and protein. Additionally, the lunch should contain no more than 30% of the total calories from fat, and no more than 10% from saturated fat. The guidelines provide unclear recommendations on fruit, vegetable, whole grain, sodium content. In general, the guidelines leave room for interpretation and do not always lead to the creation of health meals. For example, in several schools pizza counts as a vegetable due to its tomato sauce.

Another issue facing schools is the prevalence of other sources of food and snacks, which often make the problem of school lunch nutrition worse. One such source is called "commodity foods" which are free or low cost foods subsidized by the USDA. Of the subsidy money, 73% goes to buy meat and dairy, whereas less than 1% goes to subsidize fruits and vegetables. Schools also may receive "bonus foods," which are free surplus foods from farms or large-scale agriculture, which also are not typically healthy options for children. Most concerning is the widespread use of "competitive foods," a term describing foods and snacks offered outside of the auspices of the NSLP. Competitive food includes such items as vending machines (which usually contain high-calorie sugary drinks and sodas, as well as other junk foods), snack bars, and pizza or bake sales.

School lunch nutrition is of particular importance currently due to the emerging childhood obesity epidemic. Using the definition of obesity as having a BMI-for-age of greater than the 85th percentile, approximately 31.7% of American children qualify as being overweight, whereas 16.9% of US children aged 2 through 19 years meet criteria for being obese (with BMI-for-age greater than the 95th percentile). Unfortunately, this epidemic is worsening with an alarming pace - in school-age children, the rate of obesity has increased since 1980 from 6.5% to 19.6%. Given this growing problem facing our nation's youth, school lunch nutrition will play a vital role in halting and potentially reversing this concerning trend.

Farm to School provides a model for positively influencing children's eating habits through school cafeteria improvements, hands-on nutrition education, and community involvement and support. The last decade has witnessed a tremendous spike in nutrition- and health-related diseases in the country, especially those affecting children. In response, there have been numerous initiatives undertaken to combat the growing rates of childhood obesity targeted at changes at the school, community and individual levels. Farm to School is one such initiative, and it also has the added benefits of supporting small farmers, local agriculture, and local economies.