By: Abigail Harper, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems - Farm to School Specialist
In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to School (now Community Food Systems) team conducted the second nationwide Farm to School Census. The census survey, which evaluated similar topic areas as the previous 2013 census, primarily gathered data related to local food purchasing in the 2013-2014 school year. It also included questions about other farm to school activities, such as gardens, education, and promotional activities. From a total of 18,104 public school districts and private and charter schools across the country, 12,585 responded, of which about 42% reported participating in farm to school activities. That’s over 42,000 U.S. schools connecting with local food and agriculture!
Census results from self-reported data show that schools and districts spent an impressive $790 million on local food in the 2013-2014 school year. Serving locally produced foods in the cafeteria was the most common farm to school activity, but many schools reported participating in other activities as well, such as promotional events, taste tests, and field trips.
What do these results mean for Michigan? In 2014, the Michigan Department of Education measured local food purchasing across all schools and districts in Michigan through an optional two-part question on the Michigan Department of Education National School Lunch Program application, which all participating school food service directors are required to complete. Of school food service directors who responded, 54% indicated that they currently purchased local foods for their school food program, the majority through a full-service (broadline) distributor. In the 2015 Farm to School Census, however, only 68% of schools/districts responded to the survey.
While schools/districts with active farm to school programs are probably more likely to respond to the census, reporting at the national level may underestimate total activity. Regardless, even though the percentage reporting in 2015 (68%) was similar to the 2013 census (66%), reported local purchasing increased from 39% to 43%.
The rest of the findings are equally promising. According to the census results, over $19 million was invested in local food in Michigan through school food purchasing in the 2013-2014 school year, impacting over 700,000 students.
Local foods aren’t just being served at lunch, either. Schools are serving local foods in breakfast, dinner, and snacks. Many who participate are even purchasing local for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Some schools reported spending over 20% of their school food budgets on local foods, helping the state move towards the Good Food Charter goal that Michigan institutions source 20% of their food products from Michigan growers, producers and processors by 2020.
Greater community support, increased participation, and lower meal program costs are just some of the benefits that farm to school programs can bring. With 18% of those surveyed reporting plans to start farm to school activities in the near future, and nearly half of schools and districts both in Michigan and nationwide reporting plans to increase local purchasing, these benefits will only continue to grow.
Did your school or district respond to the census? Vote for it in the One in a Melon contest by April 15! One winner per state will be chosen.
See the full results of the census, including ideas for enhancing your farm to school program, at http://farmtoschoolcensus.fns.usda.gov/