Living in upstate New York, surrounded by farms at risk of going under, it’s puzzling why schools and other institutions don’t source more of their food from local farms. It would help to ensure a market for local farmers and protect our rural landscapes, keep money circulating in local communities, and provide fresher, healthier and better tasting food to school children.
An informative seminar, The Ins and Outs of School Nutrition & Farm to School, organized by Eat Well Kingston and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, and hosted recently by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County in Kingston, New York, reinforced my wonderment but also provided inspiration.
Back in 2014, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County started up a program called Live Well Kingston with the goal of bringing together local wellness initiatives. Three years later, Kingston Mayor Steve Noble folded the program into city government, making it a volunteer commission, which continued to include the input and expertise of dozens of local nonprofit, private, and county-level wellness organizations. The shared goal was to promote a culture of wellness by supporting access to healthy opportunities. Live Well Kingston included a Focus Team, or sub-committee, called Eat Well Kingston, one of the organizers of the recent seminar.
The seminar’s main presenter, Stephanie Hsu, Manager of Farm to Institution New York State (a collaborative initiative led by American Farmland Trust) apologized in advance to the packed room about the dryness of the topic which included school meal requirements, procedures for procurement and menu planning strategies. Nonetheless, Ms. Hsu, pleased that over 60 people would show up in the middle of a weekday, kept the attendees engaged in the discussion, which also spotlighted the current farm to school trends in New York.
School food is now a $13.83 billion dollar program in the federal budget. Of that, just $5 million is allocated to local food. The food service manager must balance ever-evolving nutritional requirements with costs and efficiencies. Menu planning is highly regulated by the federal government and food is paid for by a mix of government-donated food, full-price students, SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) and a la carte sales. The average school food administration operates at a deficit.
To meet these challenges, larger school districts have consolidated their food preparation into one central kitchen, with meals trucked to the individual school cafeterias each day. This means, for example, they can’t handle multiple deliveries of unwashed produce from different farmers. Distribution is a bottleneck but it could be an opportunity for change if farmers have access to a food hub, distributor, or farm co-op that can aggregate farm produce and deliver to the schools in a form they can use. And schools must be able to buy these products at competitive prices.
Each year New York schools serve meals to 1.7 million schoolchildren. The 2019 New York State budget allocated $10 million to quadruple the state’s reimbursement rate for K-12 schools that spend 30% of their lunch budget on food grown in New York State. The state also makes grants available to local districts to hire and train staff and buy equipment to increase their ability to purchase New York grown food to meet the 30% threshold. The 2020 budget recommends maintaining funding and investing through regional economic development councils to support processing and distribution of local food to K-12 schools. The budget also proposes creating School Wellness programs to bring the farm to the classroom with increased hands-on education including tastings, farm visits, and family engagement.
Throughout the presentation, there were questions and comments from food service managers (large and small school districts), community food activists, educators, parents, and farmers. Though the challenges might seem daunting, attendees appeared eager to pursue opportunities to improve school food while supporting local farmers. A follow-up planning session is in the works for ways to push the issue forward in the attendees’ particular schools and many stayed after the presentation to continue the conversation and trade contact information.
A short video produced by Farm to Institution New York State explains how food hubs, distributors and farm to school programs work together to strengthen the local farm economy and provide fresh, healthy food grown in New York State to school children. It spotlights the morning deliveries at the Western New York Food Hub owned and operated by Eden Valley Growers. It also shows students preparing and trying kale apple salad at Buffalo’s Hutch Tech High School. And it highlights how Fenton Farms, a CSA farm and a grower for the Western New York Food Hub, sells food to the Buffalo Public Schools and other institutions.
And Cornell Cooperative Extension is developing a special website for Farm to School Outreach to help schools and communities develop Farm to School programs.
On the national level, the National Farm to School Network provides support at the state, regional and national levels to connect and expand the farm to school movement, which has grown from a handful of schools in the late 1990s to tens of thousands of schools in all 50 states. The national network includes partner organizations in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. Territories, thousands of farm to school supporters, a national advisory board and staff. Launched in 2007 by a collaborative of more than 30 organizations seeking to shape the burgeoning farm to school movement, the National Farm to School Network is now a project of the Tides Center.
(Laura Shore, 11/13/19)