Could “farm to school” improve the role of food in students’ lives?

BlogHealthNov 16 2016

Each day in the United States, millions of children spend one or more meal times in school. The quality of the foods that schools provide their students has broad implications for children’s health and well-being, and its sourcing has economic implications for local communities. As a way to provide young learners with healthier foods while also supporting local food producers, many schools and organizations have adopted “farm to school” programming, an approach that was recently celebrated as part of National Farm to School Month. There is no one group of activities or characteristics that defines farm to school, and schools even vary in their definition of what is considered “local.” Generally, though, farm to school programming promotes buying local foods for school meals or snacks; educating students about food, agriculture, or health; and growing school gardens.

Farm to school programs have become increasingly widespread. According to results from the USDA 2015 Farm to School Census, 5,254 public school districts (42 percent of the 12,585 that completed the census poll) reported participating in farm to school activities during the 2013-14 school year. This approach is also increasingly written into legislation. For example, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 established a USDA Farm to School Program and grants to support farm to school programming. State and local governments have made similar effort, such as the Washington, DC Healthy Schools Act of 2010. Between 2002 and 2014 there was a dramatic overall increase in proposed and enacted bills related to farm to school. Given the widespread interest and the increases in legislation supporting these programs, it is important that schools, school districts, policymakers, and other stakeholders take note of lessons learned.

Preliminary research indicates that farm to school programming has met with success, though the topic warrants more systematic and comprehensive investigation. For example, a study examining an integration of a nutrition education curriculum with farm to school programming in a school in rural Illinois found some promising results for children’s nutritional knowledge and vegetable consumption. In addition, garden-based learning has been identified as a potential complement to classroom-based learning that can be integrated into broader curricula. It may even support academic performance.

At the same time, it can be challenging to implement farm to school programs, and such challenges can vary based on the geographic region and other contextual factors. For example, food service professionals interviewed in the Upper Midwest and Northeast regions reported that students responded positively to locally sourced foods. On the other hand, a study in Wisconsin found that, among schools with farm to school programs, locally sourced foods and salad bar items tended to be wasted more than other foods, though the differences were small. Practical challenges identified by the USDA include staffing, storage, and equipment needs; increased labor costs; securing sustainable funding sources; staff resistance to change; seasonality and other inconsistencies in the local supply of food; and allocating classroom time for farm to school education. In addition, two scholars have raised concerns that some schools may not have the same capacity to implement and sustain these kinds of initiatives as schools with more resources.

Child Trends, in partnership with the District of Columbia’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), has added to this body of work by evaluating the implementation of the DC Healthy Schools Act of 2010. The Healthy Schools Act sets guidelines and requirements for a range of health-related areas, including nutrition, physical activity, and health education for public schools in the District. It also promotes school gardening and farm to school programming: public schools in the District are reimbursed at a higher rate when meals include a component made of locally grown and unprocessed foods, and the Act established supports for school gardening and farm to school, including grants and technical assistance.

When we analyzed administrative data from schools across the District, we found a steady increase in the provision of locally grown foods year over year:  96 percent of schools said they provided locally grown foods in the 2014-15 school year, compared with 68 percent in the 2012-13 school year. This suggests that serving more locally sourced foods is an attainable goal. We also found that schools with school gardens tended to have higher average nutrition knowledge scores on a standardized health test, when compared with similar schools without gardens.

Our interviews with school staff from across the District also revealed some of the successes of farm to school and school gardening efforts. For example, several school staff spoke positively about “Strawberries and Salad Greens Day,” a farm to school educational program that celebrates local foods by providing locally grown strawberries and greens to students. One interviewee said the initiative was “a big hit,” and another told us, “[the students] love the fresh strawberries we have in the garden, and that fits in in well with OSSE’s initiative to have strawberries and greens in the cafeteria.” Additionally, school staff described some of the roles that gardens had played in schools, such as introducing students to new foods, engaging them in planting and harvesting, and serving as spaces to hold academic lessons.

At the same time, some school staff noted the challenges of farm to school programming, particularly securing adequate funding for farm visits and school gardens. We heard from one school staff member that some of the demands—such as the requirement that the equivalent of a quarter of one staff member’s time be allocated to the garden—left little time for staff to pursue grant opportunities for school gardens (for example, because schools could not afford to dedicate the required staff time to the garden). The USDA has also identified limited time and resources as some of the challenges of this work. In general, school staff members’ frustrations related to farm to school programming and school gardens came down to inadequate resources.

These findings and those of other studies give some insight into the potential of the farm to school approach, but there is still work to be done to identify best practices and surmount some of the practical challenges. This approach may very well lead to improved student nutrition and community benefit, but only if we understand the best ways to implement it.