Schools across the region – large and small, public and private – are pursuing farm to school programs in their cafeterias and their curricula. The Foundation’s goal is to support large-scale food purchasers, such as K-12 school districts, organizations engaged in Farm to School work, as well as producers and suppliers to those institutions, in ways that result in more regional food on menus, more engaged students, and a values-based food culture throughout the region.
Northeast schools lead the nation in farm to school, impacting 1.9 million students and spending $70 million on local food products, according to the USDA Farm to School Census.
When schools increase the amount and variety of locally produced food on their menus, the benefits extend far beyond the cafeteria.
Creating a more resilient, self-sustainable local food system can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce food waste by utilizing less of products’ consumable time in transit.
When local farms, fishermen, and other food producers have agreements with large-scale purchasers like school systems, they can employ more local workers, infusing dollars into the local economy. These contracts also help farmers’ businesses by providing reliable, long-term purchase orders. This cycle creates more workforce development and job opportunities for everyone at wages that allow them to thrive in our food system.
By increasing the amount and variety of less-processed, locally-produced, fresh food on school menus, school meals are more nutritious. As the quality of food increases, students develop healthy eating habits at an early age. In addition, participation in school dining programs increases, helping to address food access challenges in local districts. There is also a direct connection between nutrition and a child’s ability to learn, willingness to engage, and the quality of their experience in school.
We know from studies of the national child nutrition programs that food insecurity among children has been associated with negative health, social, and academic outcomes and that low-income food-insecure households with school-age children are more likely to participate in school meal programs than low-income food-secure households. School meals have been shown to improve diet quality and academic performance for children in low-income and food-insecure households. When served more fresh fruits and vegetables and given choice over selection of these components of the meal, students also consume more.
Local dining options help children learn more about the origins of their food, how food is produced, and how local food helps support a local economy. As children get older and gain their own food purchasing power, they may be empowered to make food purchasing choices that increase the vibrancy of their local food system.