03.17.10

Leahy Launches Bill To Multiply Farm To School Links

WASHINGTON -- Despite the usual abundance of nearby farms, local farm products are largely missing from most schools’ lunch trays.  An emerging “farm to school” movement aims to fix that by matching local farms with local schools, cutting out the middleman, and scaling up students’ nutrition.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has been joined by Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and 12 other senators in introducing legislation to expand farm to school links to boost the use of local farm products in the federally supported school lunch program.  Leahy introduced the bill on Tuesday.

Their “Growing Farm To School Programs Act” would provide $50 million in startup funds to local schools and districts, through competitive grants, for technical help in connecting school food service providers with local small and medium sized farms for efficient and cost-effective purchases of locally produced foods for school lunchrooms.

Leahy said, “Connecting farms and schools makes sense in so many ways, from economics to nutrition.  The school lunch program is a sizable buyer in every community.  There is no need to start from scratch.  We have pent up demand for fresh local food, and ample local supplies.  It’s a natural fit for an untapped market.  What we need are the links and logistics to get the ball rolling.  This bill is catalyst to forge these connections and let them flourish.”

Specter said, “The legislation I join Senator Leahy in introducing today is an important bill both for rural development and child nutrition.  Not only will it facilitate healthy eating in our school cafeterias, it will promote local food and revitalize our rural economies.”

Leahy, the most senior member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, And Forestry of either party, introduced the bill with 13 cosponsors, including Specter and Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Robert Casey (D-Pa.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

The new legislation builds on an effort Leahy and Specter began in 2004 by encouraging farm to school initiatives through provisions they added to that year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization.  The idea has caught on so successfully since then that there is a long backlog of schools wanting to try it.  Many face barriers with startup funding, planning, implementation, equipment and technical capacity.  More than 130 Vermont schools are experimenting with farm to school programs, and many more are interested.  Leahy last year brought U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to visit the Lawrence Barnes Elementary in Burlington, Vt., where Duncan learned about the school’s partnership with local farmers to provide healthy, locally grown foods and listened to teachers, parents, and students talk about challenges they face.

Leahy said struggling small and mid sized farms, ranchers and fishermen would benefit from these reliable and sustainable new markets.  Local farmers can offer fresh choices, needing less processing, while offering students the chance to learn how and where their food is grown.  Cutting out middlemen and selling directly to nearby schools lets farmers keep more of each dollar, which rebounds through the local economy.  While most farmers earn just 20 cents of every food dollar Americans spend, farm to school farmers might earn as much as 60 to 70 cents on each dollar of sales. 

In turn, thriving local farms create jobs, maintain agricultural infrastructure, pay taxes and keep working land open.  A study in Oregon last year found that every dollar invested in farm to school projects triggered $1.87 in local economic activity.  With so many children having never visited a farm and having no concept of where their food comes from, the farm to school programs help connect students directly with farms and the chain through which crops become items at the cafeteria counter.

The farm to school movement also fits neatly into emerging strategies to counter childhood obesity such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign.  Today more than 30 percent of American children are obese, and the risks to children’s health are also risks to the economy, with the billions of dollars spent each year treating obesity-related conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  The Centers for Disease Control have identified increased fresh fruit and vegetable consumption as one of six top strategies to control and prevent obesity. 

Leahy expects the new bill to be incorporated into a major child nutrition reauthorization bill that is nearing action by the Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).


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Comments in support of the Growing Farm To School Programs Act:

NATIONAL SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE COALITION:

"Senator Leahy's Growing Farm to School Programs Act is an example of good government at its best.  Farm to school programs ensure that our school children eat the freshest, most nutritious food possible while keeping food dollars in the local economy, stimulating rural communities and supporting the livelihoods of the small and mid-sized farmers that are their strength.  We know from experience that teaching children about agriculture so they understand where their food comes from creates permanent improvements in their eating habits.  This program provides at least two dollars in immediate nutrition and economic benefits as well as providing a solid investment in the next generation's health and the vibrancy of their communities."

ABBIE NELSON, Director of Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED); a program of Food Works, NOFA-VT and Shelburne Farms:

“More and more communities across the nation are recognizing the value of farm to school programs for the health of their children, their farmers, and their local economies.  Here in Vermont, hundreds of school communities are working hard to implement strong farm to school programs.  These programs need technical assistance and start up funds to rebuild kitchen infrastructure, recreate business relationships with local farmers, provide professional development opportunities for teachers and food service, and to kick start the transition towards fresher and healthier school food.  The Growing Farm to School Programs Act is a powerful statement of support for America’s children.”

MEGAN CAMP, VICE PRESIDENT AND PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SHELBURNE FARMS:

“VT FEED commends Senator Leahy for his leadership in introducing the “Growing Farm to School Programs Act of 2010.” Farm to School helps kids make healthy food choices by removing barriers to serving fresh fruits and vegetables in the school cafeteria. In Vermont we’ve taken this a step further, by integrating farming and food education into the classroom curriculum and getting students into the community meeting farmers and learning first-hand about foods grown locally. We offer technical assistance to numerous schools and communities locally and around the country that would benefit tremendously from this bill supporting exemplary Farm to School efforts.”  

KOI BOYNTON, VERMONT AGENCY OF AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND MARKETS:

“Providing startup funds is essential for growing a sustainable Farm to School program.  For the last four years the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has been awarding small grants to schools for planning and implementation of Farm to School Programs. Awarding grant funding is helping communities with planning, providing technical assistance and purchases of essential equipment. We look forward to the opportunity of leveraging our limited state funding with federal Farm to School dollars through this bill.” 

DOUG DAVIS, Director of Food Service, Burlington Schools:

“Over the past year we have seen a garden put in at the White House, USDA launch a new initiative called "know your farmer know your food" and we have seen Michelle Obama among others calling attention to the seriousness of childhood obesity in our nation.  With this legislation and the potential of startup grants, schools and communities will have the opportunity to make positive change.  Farm2School has reinvented school meals here in Burlington and across Vermont.  We are able to buy products that are grown locally, connect our students with our local food system, help to keep our farms viable and contribute financially to the well being of our communities.  I see this legislation as a win for farmers, communities, school food service and especially students.”

MARION KALB, CO-DIRECTOR, NATIONAL FARM TO SCHOOL NETWORK:

 "The National Farm to School Network applauds the leadership that Senator Leahy has shown in bringing farm to school issues to the forefront of the national agenda to improve children's health and the well-being of our nation's family farms". 

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David Carle: 202-224-3693