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Betting the farm on school lunch

Today, millions of K12 students will eat meals provided by their local schools.

For many students, especially those from families of lesser means, school-provided meals constitute the only reliable source of daily recommended nutrition they receive all day. For fewer still, school-provided lunches provide their only source of daily food at all.

More than half of U.S. students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to a report in the Washington Post, making school lunch programs essential to the health and well-being of America’s K12 students.

Preparing and serving  daily meals to students and teachers is a tremendous undertaking–and one that is often, regrettably, taken for granted.

A complex to-do list that includes menu creation, materials ordering, food prep, nutritional guidelines and serving procedures, creates headaches for even the most veteran of food service professionals.

Increasingly, schools are exploring the benefits of the “farm-to-school” movement as a means to reduce the logistical hurdles that plague many school breakfast and lunch programs.

In an effort to cut costs, save time, and reinvest in local communities, a growing contingent of school leaders are advocating for the use of locally grown and sourced ingredients in school meals. And the benefits are clear, according to a census report from the USDA.

A closer look at the numbers
More than 5,000 school districts participate in farm-to-school food service programs, according to the USDA report, accounting for more than 40 percent of the districts that participated in the survey.

The shift has amounted to a boon for local farms and other businesses.

During the 2013-2014 school year alone, schools purchased nearly $790 million in local goods. That’s a 105 percent increase in local investment compared with the 2011-2012 school year, according to the USDA report.

“We work with over 10 different local farms,” one respondent from a district in Washington state said in the report. “We want to support local and know who is growing our food.”

The future of farm to school
According to the census, 16 percent of surveyed schools plan on starting farm-to-school programs in the next year. Of those that already have such programs, nearly half expect to increase activity.

It’s worth noting, of course, that the USDA offers grants to participating farm-to-school districts.

The grant program was created under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the most recent reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which sets standards and funding for school lunch and breakfast programs.

The 2010 law met its fair share of backlash from the food industry and many school district leaders, who called for less stringent nutritional guidelines, as this Washington Post article explains.

School lunch debates reflect broader political conversations about the role of government in family and community-based decisions.

No matter on what side of the school lunch debate you stand, you can bet that parents and students have opinions. As you make decisions about food service in your schools, make sure your community has an opportunity to weigh in.

Is your school district doing everything it can to ensure students have access to quality, affordable school-based meals? Are you currently engaged in a farm-to-school meal program in your school or district? Tell us in the comments.

Want to know what your community thinks about your school meal programs? This simple tool can help you solicit helpful feedback.