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Farm to School Reinvents School Food

Farm-to-school programs have become increasingly commonplace in the past few years. These programs encourage schools to look locally when sourcing ingredients for meals. Although school meal programs have historically faced strict requirements and regulations, various policy changes (some influenced by the COVID-19 supply chain disruptions) have recently allowed schools a bit more flexibility, which further helps farm-to-school concepts to flourish. 

Local and seasonal foods offer so many benefits. For one, it’s climate-friendly and sustainable — growing locally and in season frequently reduces the number of inputs (like fertilizers, pesticides, and water) and food miles required to grow and distribute the food. It’s also healthier for students — using whole ingredients to create nutrient-dense and scratch-cooked meals provides essential nourishment so that kids can focus and learn. It also fosters a connection to local producers and boosts the local economy by supporting farmers. 

Eat REAL schools are a great model of this type of purchasing in action. Juan Cordon, Food Service Director at Vacaville Unified School District, is hyper-focused on creating relationships with local farms and producers, many of which did not previously sell to schools. Not only did this purchasing policy help weather supply chain shortages, but expanded the district’s scratch-cooked meals to introduce kids to new nutrient-dense foods in ways they’ll enjoy. Lifelong eating habits are created in school, and introducing kids to new and healthy foods will shape their choices with their families and throughout their lives.

Another standout example is San Luis Coastal Unified’s rockstar Food Service Director Erin Primer. In 2021, they received the California School Board Association’s Golden Bell Award for their outstanding farm-to-school program, determination to source products from local farmers and vendors, and mission to de-stigmatize the perception of school food. Lastly, Boulder Valley School District focuses on sustainable sourcing by supporting local farms and ranches to procure a significant portion of their ingredients. These ingredients shine in every meal exposing students to new local and seasonal foods in delicious and exciting ways.

Further, Eat REAL supports food service leaders to connect with local farmers and ranchers. Eat REAL recently hosted a gathering of local Food Service Directors, California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) representatives, Jennifer Siebel Newsom (First Partner of California), and food industry and nonprofit leaders to discuss what it would take to reach this new level of farm to school purchasing with the group’s combined $130M in buying power. 

Fortunately, this practice is increasing beyond California nationwide. Food service directors from Georgia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (just to name a few examples) have increasingly turned to local purchasing as a way to ease supply chain disruptions and support local producers. As of last summer, there were at least five federal bills aimed at supporting successful state-level farm to school efforts, which demonstrates the need for such programs.

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