Expansion of Farm-to-School Programs Depends on Innovation and Collaboration

                                                       DiNapoli: Expansion of Farm-to-School Programs Depends on Innovation and Collaboration

Hundreds of New York school districts are increasing children’s consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and helping students learn about food production through farm-to-school programs, but the growth of these programs may be limited by various challenges, according to a report issued today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

DiNapoli released his report when he toured the Gov. George Clinton Elementary School garden in Poughkeepsie. 

“Interest in farm-to-school programs is widespread, but it’s not always easy for school districts across New York to bring fresh, locally produced foods to their students,” DiNapoli said. “We’ve seen many successes on the local level across New York. Local communities and policymakers should consider steps outlined in my report to strengthen these programs to bring more food from local farms to school cafeterias.” 

“We are honored to partner with the Poughkeepsie Farm-to-School Project in this mission-critical, equity initiative focused on incorporating fresh, local, healthy foods into the daily diets of the scholars we serve in the district,” said Dr. Nicolé Williams, superintendent of the Poughkeepsie City School District. “The Poughkeepsie Farm-to-School project provides procurement assistance for local foods, professional development in a community of practice around healthy eating and nutrition, access to information and local support on how to start a school garden, and in-school taste testing of healthy fruits and vegetables. As a result of this robust partnership, scholars and families are making data-informed decisions about their food choices.”

“When Farm Project educators arrive at Poughkeepsie schools, the students exclaim with delight and ask what they will be tasting that day,” said Jamie Lovato, education director of Poughkeepsie Farm Project. “Our partnership with Poughkeepsie schools is really changing what kids eat. When students have the opportunities to see where their food comes from while exploring farm fields, cooking simple healthy dishes, and learning their academic curriculum in farm and garden settings, they are more interested in eating local food in their school cafeterias, growing their own food at home, and teaching their families new recipes with local produce.”

DiNapoli’s report, “Locally Grown: Farm-to-School Programs in New York State,” details hurdles school districts face when creating and sustaining such programs. For example, schools face constraints involving staffing and facilities and challenges in purchasing the food.

The report also outlines federal and state initiatives that are intended to encourage farm-to-school programs. New York state’s Farm-to-School Program, created in 2001, is run by the Department of Agriculture and Markets and the State Education Department. In 2015, Ag and Markets awarded close to $325,000 in grants to help build capacity for farm-to-school programs in six areas of the state. The 2016-17 enacted state budget included $550,000 in funding for such initiatives. Federal and state funds are key sources of support for school lunch and breakfast programs. This year’s state budget includes $1.1 billion in federal funding and $34.4 million in state funds for these programs.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture national census of farm-to-school programs, 298 districts in New York, or 43 percent of state school districts, reported participating in farm-to-school activities. At least 292 districts maintained school gardens. In total, the 298 school districts with 1,336 schools and nearly 759,000 students reported spending $45,324,500 on local food in New York, with the average school district spending 11 percent of its food budget on local products. 

Over the years, the food industry has moved to a system that relies on transporting products long distances and may not track where foods come from. The programs described in the Comptroller’s report found ways to access foods from local producers including new procurement tools added in state and federal laws to assist schools in this effort.

The report describes how six school districts around New York are working to address challenges and bring these programs to their students. For example:

  • Poughkeepsie City School District provides locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables for families of children in their summer feeding program. 
  • Broome-Tioga BOCES has arranged for regional food bank trucks to pick up local apples that BOCES provides to its constituent schools; the food bank’s “fee” for this service is apples for its customers.
  • Rondout Valley Central School District volunteers glean local farm fields for broccoli and other produce, and then process and freeze the resulting harvest in school kitchens for students’ lunches.
  • Buffalo City School District emphasizes student engagement in its farm-to-school program, working with a local youth development organization to set program goals and implement its Farm-to-School grant. Buffalo also partners with a nearby college for program evaluation. 

DiNapoli’s report describes the challenges farmers can face in entering a farm-to-school market and competing in school food procurement. Farmers may not be aware of the publications in which schools post their request for bids, or may not be familiar with other aspects of the procurement process such as billing complexities. The expense of complying with food safety processes can also be a barrier, particularly for small vendors.

DiNapoli outlines a set of suggestions for districts and policy makers to consider in building on the statewide farm-to-school program infrastructure, including:

  • Looking to boards of cooperative educational services, which in some areas support farm-to-school programs, as a source of expert advice or an organizational home for efforts to emphasize local food purchases;
  • Providing training in planning and implementing successful farm-to-school programs to school district personnel; and
  • Supporting joint purchasing agreements among districts through the state Farm-to-School grant program and examining the role of farm-to-school as regional food hubs grow across the state.

Read the report “Locally Grown: Farm to School Programs in New York State,” or go to:http://www.osc.state.ny.us/reports/other/farm_to_school_2016.pdf

For access to state and local government spending and more than 50,000 state contracts, visit www.openbooknewyork.com. The easy-to-use website was created by DiNapoli to promote openness in government and provide taxpayers with better access to the financial workings of government.

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