Organizations Urge Congress to Fund Farm to School Program

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The Farm to School bill has so much win-win embedded in it, I have trouble imagining why any legislator wouldn’t be willing and even eager to support it. The program would increase sales of farm products and improve child nutrition by making locally raised food available in our schools.

A farm-to-school program was first authorized in 2004 in the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, but funds were never actually appropriated for the effort. Earlier this year, Senator Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) each introduced farm-to-school bills that include $50 million in mandatory funding for a program to be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Representatives Farr (D-CA) and Putnam (R-FL) included $50 million for farm-to-school in their Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Act of 2009 (H.R. 4333), as did California Sen. Barbara Boxer in her Growing Farm to School Protection Act (S. 3144).

On Monday, 41 national organizations delivered a letter to House and Senate Congressional leaders urging them to include $50 million in mandatory funding for programs linking farmers with local schools as part of the 2010 Child Nutrition Act reauthorization. Farm to School programs have been shown to increase farmers’ incomes while improving the nutrition and food literacy of school children. Considering that an alarming number of our school children think food actually originates in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, this seems like a truly valuable program.

The Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the Child Nutrition bill on March 24, including $40 million for Farm to School. Mark-up in the House Education and Labor Committee is expected later this spring. The full Senate and House are expected to take action on the bill sometime this year.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Farm to school programs improve nutrition for children who participate in the school lunch program and lead to significant changes in the young people’s eating habits – particularly important as our country faces an epidemic of childhood obesity.

“We know that we need to do a better job of ensuring that school food programs provide the best food possible for children,” Fitzgerald stated in a NSAC press release. “This is the rallying call of many prominent dietitians, educators and doctors, as well as First Lady Michelle Obama. Food sourced from local farms is freshest and, combined with teaching children about where their food comes from, provides children the knowledge they need to make good food choices for the rest of their lives.”

Farm to school programs also offers immediate and long-term economic benefits, the NSAC said. According to a study in Oregon, every dollar school districts spent on local food purchases stimulated an additional eighty-seven cents in economic activity.

“Farm to school increases farm sales and because the money stays local, it generates a ripple effect throughout the area’s economy,” Fitzgerald said. “In addition, delivering nutritious food to local schools can bring producers into neighborhoods that are now ‘food deserts,’ creating an opportunity to expand good food choices to area stores and institutions. Farm to school is a winning idea nutritionally, economically and environmentally.”

Sen. Leahy’s bill (S. 3123) was included in the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010 that was voted out of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee unanimously on March 24 and is waiting to go to the Senate floor. During markup in the Senate Committee, the bill reduced the funding level for farm to school to $40 million. In the House, Rep. Holt’s bill, the Farm to School Improvements Act (H.R. 4710), is waiting for consideration by the Education and Labor Committee.

Concerns in both the Senate and House about how to pay for the funding increases have slowed The Child Nutrition Act reauthorization. Discussions of funding methods continue, with attention increasingly focused on the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee. The closing of tax loopholes was used to pay for improved food stamp benefits during the 2008 Farm Bill negotiations, and some suggest a similar maneuver to pay for improved school meals.

We’ll keep an eye on these programs as they make their way through the legislative process. We think they’re important for the health of our children, the health of our rural economies and the economic well-being of our farm and market-gardener friends.