First-ever census reveals growing popularity of Farm to School program

By Tim Carman

More than 40 percent of the U.S. public school districts that responded to a historic census said they were participating in a program that helps bring fresh, local produce to school cafeterias. The percentage of participating schools was even higher in Maryland, Virginia, and the District, where the program has taken deep root.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) first-ever census of school districts across the country revealed how popular the national Farm to School program has become in recent years: About 43 percent of U.S. school districts — or about 38,600 schools — bought local produce for their students during the 2011-2012 school year, investing more than $354 million in farms near their communities. Another 13 percent said they would be participating in the program “in the near future.”

Those statistics are based on a census sent to approximately 13,000 public school districts, according to the USDA, which officially released the results on Oct. 22. An estimated 8,800 returned the census, for a 67 percent response rate.

The participating schools, noted Deborah Kane, national director for the USDA’s Farm to School program, cover the full spectrum: red states and blue states, affluent communities and poor ones. “We’re talking about programs that have wide appeal,” Kane said during a conference call with reporters on Oct. 21.

The numbers were even more impressive in Maryland, Virginia, and the District, Kane later told The Washington Post.

Ninety-one percent of the school districts in Maryland that responded — 22 of the approximately 25 public school districts in the state filled out the census — said they were participating in such a program, and the other 9 percent said they would be in the near future. In the 2011-2012 academic year, Maryland schools spent an estimated $8.5 million to buy apples, peaches, tomatoes, corn, milk, and other products from area farmers.

In Virginia, where 90 percent of the 138 school districts responded to the census, 64 percent of the districts said they were participating in a farm-related food program. Another 12 percent said they planned to participate in the near future. All told, during the 2011-2012 academic year, Virginia schools spent nearly $11 million to buy local apples, lettuce, sweet potatoes, berries, tomatoes, beef, and other products to feed schoolchildren.

The numbers are harder to crunch in the District, Kane said, where most students are enrolled in a single district, D.C. Public Schools. Nonetheless, the census was sent to 67 charter and private schools as well as to D.C. Public Schools. In most other jurisdictions, she said, states tried to screen out private and charter schools from their census responses.

Of those 67 census surveys in the District, 26 were completed, Kane said. About 73 percent of those that responded said they were participating in a farm-to-school program, she said. Another 12 percent said they plan to start one in the near future. Kane estimated that more than 57,000 children in the District are involved in such programs and that District schools spent $2.6 million to buy locally sourced apples, pears, milk, tomatoes, chicken, and other products.

Reliable Farm to School statistics have been hard to obtain in previous years because the USDA had to rely on a patchwork of state agencies and advocacy groups for data that was often outdated. The National Farm to School Network, which supports these programs across the nation, noted there were 400 Farm to School programs in 22 states in 2004, a figure that rose to 2,000 programs in 40 states in 2009. Now the census shows that 38,629 schools in all 50 states buy local produce.

The farm to school movement — a term that encompasses not just healthy eating in lunchrooms but also educational activities such as farm visits and school gardens — began in the late 1990s with a few pilot projects. The USDA established the national Farm to School program in 2000 and now supports participating school districts with research, training, technical assistance, and grants.

The surge in Farm to School programs has been a boon to local farmers, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Farmers now have one more way to sell their products directly to consumers.

“This is just another direct-to-consumer sale opportunity with a much larger purchaser,” Vilsack said during the conference call on Oct. 21, “and we hope that this information will spur not just school districts across the country, but universities and colleges” to buy more local produce for their cafeterias.

As part of the census announcement, the USDA rolled out an interactive website to give school districts, state agencies, and agricultural producers a snapshot of what schools are buying and what they plan to buy in the future. The site, said Kane, could help farmers and ranchers “ready themselves to participate in this bustling school food marketplace.”

The USDA plans to launch another Farm to School census during the current school year.

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