It is not a secret that healthy children have higher levels of academic achievement in the classroom (Dirks and Orvis 2005, Waliczek 2001). Having access to nutritious food, in school and at home, can play a big role in influencing a child’s health and learning outcomes. Increasingly, schools are investing in programs that promote healthier food choices and nutrition education. One of the most popular and successful programs in the United States today is farm to school.
Farm to school began as a grassroots movement in the late 1990s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture started an initiative to connect small farms with school meal programs. Beginning with just a handful of schools, the movement has blossomed to include over 40,000 schools and 23.5 million students in all fifty states as of 2012. In 2007, the National Farm to School Network was launched by a collaborative of more than 30 organizations to connect and strengthen the many facets of the farm to school movement.
Farm to school’s focus is connecting communities with their local food producers and fresh, healthy food by implementing local food sourcing and food and agriculture education in schools. Students gain access to nutritious, local food products and unique educational opportunities such as school gardens, cooking lessons, and farm field trips. As a result, students and their families are empowered to make healthier food choices while strengthening the local economy and their community.
Although farm to school differs by location, program implementation typically includes at least one of the following three core components:
- Procurement: Local foods are purchased, promoted, and served in the school cafeteria or as a snack or taste test.
- Education: Students participate in educational activities related to agriculture, food, health, and/or nutrition.
- School Gardens: Students engage in hands-on learning through gardening.
Benefits of Farm to School
The farm to school movement provides benefits across four primary sectors: public health, community economic development, education, and environmental quality.
At its core, farm to school is a school-based strategy that focuses on creating healthy school environments. Farm to school activities promote healthy eating habits in children, such as increased fruit and vegetable consumption, by providing high quality, nutritious food options and hands-on classroom activities around agriculture and nutrition. By investing in school gardens and composting programs, schools can contribute to healthier communities by teaching students and community members about where their food comes from, how it is grown, and how food affects their health and wellness.
Community Economic Development
Farm to school provides financial and development opportunities for food growers and producers by connecting them with schools interested in sourcing local ingredients. Working with schools and school districts allows growers and producers to build positive relationships within their communities and increase awareness and interest in purchasing local foods. By purchasing local food, community members strengthen the local economy and show their support for fresh, healthy food options in schools and around the family dinner table.
Farm to school curriculum and educational activities help children increase their knowledge and awareness around gardening, agriculture, healthy eating, local food, and the benefits of eating seasonally. These topics can be embedded into core content areas in schools through case studies that balance hands-on learning with reading, writing, and math-based projects that are designed to support proficiency in Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. Farm to school is also helping boost student achievement and well-being. Students involved with farm to school have not only demonstrated higher academic achievement in the classroom, but improved social skills and self-esteem (Dirks and Orvis 2005, Waliczek 2001).
Farm to school activities support environmentally sound, sustainable, and socially just approaches to food production, processing, packaging, transportation, and marketing. Farm to school promotes an ecological ethic among its participants, encourages infrastructure that supports healthy environments, and promotes agriculture and distribution practices that minimizes a food product’s carbon footprint.
5 Steps to Launching a Farm to School Program
Farm to school is a grassroots movement that is easy for schools to get involved with. Whether a school chooses to address all three core components or just one, farm to school can easily be adapted to meet a school’s needs.
- Assess where you are and where you would like to be. What capacity does your school have to implement a farm to school program? Can you address all three components or just one? These are questions you need to answer before getting started. Once you understand your capacity to implement a farm to school program, define what your goals are: will you be procuring local food for the cafeteria, establishing a school garden, or integrating farm to school into the curriculum? All three?
- Form a team and collaborate. Build a team to support and sustain your farm to school program. Key team members should include school food service staff, teachers, administrators, local farmers, students, parents, and community organizations.
- Establish one or two attainable goals to get started. Start with small successes and build from there. Some ideas include:
- Identify menu items that you would like to transition to local products.
- Find a farmer or distributor to connect you to local products.
- Plan a local meal event, such as a harvest dinner.
- Determine training needs to assist food service staff with incorporating farm fresh items in meals.
- Convene a school garden planning team.
- Identify curricular opportunities to connect to a school garden.
- Bring a chef into the classroom.
- Plan a farm field trip or host a tasting event featuring local produce.
- Learn from others. Connect with others working in the farm to school movement to learn best practices and find answers to questions. Places to start include:
- The National Farm to School Network: Locate and contact your state or regional farm to school lead agency.
- The National Farm to School Network resource database.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School website. Find support, resources, and funding opportunities for your farm to school activities.
- Your state’s School Nutrition Association. Learn how others in your state are implementing farm to school in their school or school district.
- Connect with the Child Nutrition Program at your state agency, typically in the Department of Education or the Department of Agriculture.
- Promote farm to school in your school and community. Take the time to spread the word and promote the activities your school is engaged in. Some ideas include:
- Hang signs or flyers in the cafeteria and on bulletin boards throughout the school.
- Write articles for the school and community newspapers.
- Post events, stories, and other pertinent information on the school website (or create a separate farm to school webpage for your school).
- Make announcements at school events, such as PTA meetings or school board meetings.
- Pitch stories to the local media: TV, radio, and print.
Maintaining a Farm to School Program
Have a plan for sustaining your farm to school program from the start and be open to adapting and changing your plan along the way. Consider the following questions during the planning process to ensure farm to school continues to make an impact for years to come:
- What types of funding, equipment, materials, hands-on support, and policy changes do you need to sustain the program? How will these needs increase or decrease in the future?
- How will farm to school be integrated into the daily operations of the school or school district? Can the program live if a key player leaves?
- How will the farm to school program be funded in the future? Through grants, monetary support from the school or school district, or donations from parents or the community? Will you hold special fundraising events throughout the year? How about in-kind donations?
- Do you plan on seeking out partners to raise funds or assist with carrying out essential components of the program? Will these partners be temporary or invested in the long-term sustainability of the program?
Farm to school programs have the potential to impact children beyond the classroom by influencing their food choices and lifestyle behaviors for years to come. They can strengthen communities, empower farmers, and protect the environment. Consider starting a farm to school program at your school or getting involved in the movement. It’s a win-win-win for students, farmers, and communities.
Dirks AE, Orvis K. An evaluation of the Junior Master Gardener Program in third grade classrooms. HortTechnology. 2005;15(3):443-447.
Waliczek TM. The effect of school gardens on children’s inter¬personal relationships and attitudes toward school. Hort¬Technology. 2001;11(3):466-468.
The National Farm to School Network website (http://www.farmtoschool.org/)
U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Planning Toolkit (http://www.fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool/census#/toolkit)