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Farm to School Census shows room for growth

Some schools are spending as much as 20 percent of their meals budget on food sourced locally, according to a recent USDA survey. (juliejordanscott/CC)
Some schools are spending as much as 20 percent of their meals budget on food sourced locally, according to a recent USDA survey. (juliejordanscott/CC)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released findings from its Farm to School Census, a comprehensive survey of school districts nationwide. It found that most Midwestern states lag behind the coasts for participation in Farm to School programs, but across the region districts are spending from 5-20 percent of their food budgets on products they source locally or regionally. (The districts, not USDA, define “local” so it may mean different things in different areas).  

The data come primarily from the 2011-2012 school year and some districts reported that they increased participation in farm to school programs in 2012-2013. Across the region, most Midwestern states reported that 25-50 percent of districts participate in some way in the Farm to School initiative (Nebraska reported less than 25 percent and Minnesota and Wisconsin reported 51-75 percent).

Local school foodCorry Bregendahl, of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, says she hears increasingly from districts that want to get more local foods on the table.

“They’re eager to be a part of this, but there [are] still some significant challenges associated with their participation,” Bregendahl said.

Those include regulations, such as the competitive bidding process, and school kitchen logistics.

“The food service needs a lot of support because a lot of them don’t even have slicing equipment,” Bregendahl said, “They’ve evolved to be warmers, not food preparers."

When local food sourcing does succeed, Bregendahl says, it can have ripple effects for the area’s economy. In Iowa, for example, she surveyed farmers and the local institutions that were buying their products. In 2012, together they created two dozen new jobs as a direct result of local food system efforts. Some jobs were on-farm, but more were at the schools, restaurants and other places buying the produce. For example, often a school district will need new food service workers to wash and prepare ingredients that replace canned items that previously only needed to be heated and served.

State by state, and even district-level, findings from the USDA Farm to School Census are available here.