For the first time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed school districts around the country to find out how much of their food is purchased locally -- and how much they’re teaching students about nutrition and farming. The results of the so-called farm-to-school census are out this week.
And here in the salad bowl of the world, schools benefit from their proximity to farms big and small.
Fourth-graders from Frank Paul Elementary School took a recent field trip to Coke Farms in San Juan Bautista. Frank Paul is part of the Alisal Union School District in Salinas, and the district is something of an early adopter in farm to schools.
The Farm to School movement is a national effort to get more local foods into school cafeterias and teach students about where that food is grown and produced. That’s where field trips come in.
Kathryn Spencer organized the Coke Farms trip for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. She says, “What we really hope these kids get out of it, is making that farm to fork connection, really seeing where their food is coming from and then knowing, hey, I’m seeing this in my cafeteria, or I’m seeing this in my grocery store, and maybe I should eat more of it.”.
What’s happening here reflects the USDA’s vision for schools across the country.
“The USDA’s vision, if you will, for farm to school is that one day every school in the country will be featuring a local or regional product on their menu on a daily basis,” says the head of the USDA’s farm-to-school program.
Before that vision can be realized, the USDA has to figure out how many school districts are already doing this. Enter the first-ever farm-to-school census released this week after the agency surveyed the nation’s 13,000 school districts this past spring.
Nationally, 43 percent of school districts who answered the survey say they’re engaging in some farm to school activity. This translates into $355 million in local purchases. And more than half of the districts say they plan to buy more locally in the future.
Ultimately, the USDA hopes the census can help build a bigger market for local produce by encouraging schools to buy more, and helping farmers figure out how to best position themselves as suppliers to schools.
The census results include the top five local products that schools buy: fruit, vegetables, milk, baked goods and herbs.
“We also wanted to hear from them (about) where they saw their local purchases going in the future, so that we could telegraph for farmers and ranchers and fishermen across the country where the schools food market was likely headed, so they could tap into that market in the future,” Kane says.
The USDA plans to conduct the next census in the spring of 20-15.