Over the past decade, farm-to-school programs—in which school districts source lunches (and other meals and snacks) from local suppliers—have become increasingly popular nationwide. The advantages of farm-to-school are twofold: first, it teaches children to make informed food choices, and second, it provides an economic stimulus to local suppliers and surrounding communities.
For the 2015-2016 school year, we worked with the National Farm to School Network to evaluate one of the most ambitious farm-to-school programs to date—a total of $4.5 million in grants, allocated by the Oregon legislature, to 124 school districts. The legislation allocated 80 percent of these funds to procurement of local foods. Districts and other organizations could bid competitively if they wanted a portion of the 20 percent of funding allocated to education (e.g., providing educational activities to students related to agriculture, food, health, or nutrition).
Our data collection and analysis efforts (supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the Healthy Eating Research program) transpired in three phases. First, we elicited opinions from an advisory panel on how farm-to-school legislation can improve program access among low-income school districts. Second, we conducted interviews with various Oregon stakeholders: procurement grantees, education grantees, producers/distributors, and nonprofit and policy advocates, among others. And third, we used existing data from the Oregon Department of Education to examine the reach and adoption of Oregon’s farm-to-school legislation in districts serving low-income and/or minority children.
Healthy Eating Habits Stimulate Local Economies
Although $4.5 million worth of farm-to-school grants represents only a small percentage of the Oregon school lunch program (about $150 million over two years), the grant program produced encouraging results in its first year. Overall, schools purchased produce from 74 Oregon farm businesses; meat, seafood, and/or poultry from 27 Oregon businesses; and dairy products from 15 Oregon dairy businesses. In addition, by the end of the first school year, 16 districts had opened new accounts with Oregon producers and 23 districts had opened new accounts with distributors offering Oregon-sourced products.
While there was some success among meat suppliers—for example, one local seafood factory changed its production process, portioning its fish into child-friendly, three-ounce filets that attracted interest even from districts not on the coast—the bulk of the impact of the farm-to-school program was on fruits and vegetables. Thanks to the vagaries of the distribution process, locally grown meat tends to be slightly more expensive than meat sourced out of state, but produce is more cost-effective and can easily be served in a school salad bar.
In the schools, the benefits of the grant program were less quantifiable, but just as apparent. We received encouraging feedback about the willingness of students to sample new kinds of food, like green hummus, as well as increased awareness of where school lunches actually come from, obtained from educational materials and field trips to local farms. One school in the program asked its students to rank the foods available in the cafeteria, and reported an increase in “likes” for locally grown products.
Navigating the Challenges of an Effective Farm-to-School Program
As successful as Oregon’s farm-to-school grant program has been, there were challenges involved in implementing this model. Many districts reported difficulty finding local producers, as well as producers that were big enough to supply the needs of multiple schools. Also, schools have limited resources to devote to food processing. Even something as simple as cutting up a watermelon can present logistical challenges; schools usually resorted to distributors, which adapted to the farm-to-school initiative by identifying locally grown and processed foods on their price sheets.
Crucially, we found that much of the success of the Oregon farm-to-school grant program depended on the way grants were allocated. Before the latest round of funding, grants were competitive, meaning that districts had to actively bid for funding—and many districts, especially in poorer parts of the state, simply did not have the personnel to spare for this task. The bulk of the $4.5 million grant authorized by the Oregon legislature was opt-in, meaning that districts only had to express interest in the program to receive funding based on the number of school lunches they served.
The Future of the Farm-to-School Movement
Is farm-to-school a sustainable concept? That is, can systems be implemented that will allow schools in various areas of the country to reliably and economically source their school lunches from local providers? That is a question that remains to be answered. Doing so will require the continuing involvement of state legislatures, local producers, and school districts eager to improve the health of their students and educate them about the source of the foods they eat.