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Take Action: Learn about the USDA Farm to School Grant Program

NFSN Staff Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Photo Courtesy: USDA Food and Nutrition Service
By Christina Conell, USDA Office of Community Food Systems

National Farm to School Month is not just a time for celebration. It’s also a time to take action. This October, USDA’s Office of Community Food Systems invites you to learn more about the USDA Farm to School Grant Program.  

In 2010, the Farm to School Program was established by law to assist eligible entities – through grants and technical assistance – in implementing farm to school programs that improve access to local foods in schools. To fulfill this commitment, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides $5 million on an annual basis to support these grants.

Just in time for Farm to School Month, the fiscal year 2018 Farm to School Grant Program Request for Applications was released last week! Designed to increase the availability of local foods in schools, grants can help new farm to school programs get started or expand existing efforts. Funds support a wide range of activities from training, planning and developing partnerships to creating new menu items, establishing supply chains, offering taste tests for children, purchasing equipment, planting school gardens and organizing field trips to agricultural operations.

To date, the USDA Farm to School Grant Program has provided more than $25 million for 365 farm to school projects to increase the amount of healthy, local food in schools across all 50 states, plus the Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. 

Reaching more than 29,000 schools and approximately 13 million students in the past five years, the Farm to School Grant Program is an effective mechanism for increasing local foods in schools and creating new markets for producers. In looking at baseline and final reports from fiscal year 2015 and 2016 grantees, it’s evident that these efforts are making a difference. From the start of their grant period, grantees report increased garden activities, taste tests, farm field trips and more farm to school concepts embedded in schools’ curriculum.

Take action and learn more about the USDA Farm to School Grant Program with these resources:


Food Hub, Food Truck and Food Education: Northern Colorado School District Takes Farm to School to Next Level

NFSN Staff Wednesday, November 16, 2016

By Andrea Northup, USDA Farm to School Regional Lead for the Mountain Plains Region, and Helen Dombalis, Programs Director and Interim Policy Director for the National Farm to School Network

A bin of acorn squash sits on a pallet at the Weld County School District 6 central kitchen, right next to a bin of yellow onions and a 1,000 pound tote of russet potatoes – all locally-grown.  A walk through the facility is enough to convince anyone that Weld County School District 6 is committed to scratch-cooked, locally-grown food for its 22,000 students at 35 schools.  In this rural Colorado school district, where over 40 languages are spoken at home and 66 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, fresh, tasty food is the norm – even down to the green chili, a southwestern favorite roasted in-house using three varieties of local peppers.

About a quarter of the central kitchen is dedicated to processing fresh fruits and vegetables.  Mushrooms are sliced, carrots are shredded, and onions are diced.  With funding from a USDA Farm to School Grant in 2013, this Food Hub portion of the kitchen was furnished with tables, wash stations and equipment to process local food for Weld County’s own meals and for other districts in the area.

Natalie Leffler is the Food Hub Manager at Weld County School District 6.  Her job is to coordinate partnerships with farmers, ranchers and local businesses to source as much local food as possible, defined as grown or produced within a 400 mile radius. Natalie manages an annual bid to establish relationships and contracts.  Growers must submit a food safety checklist with their bid documents, which Natalie confirms with an in-person site visit, so the district can rest assured that the local products are safe.  

Matt Poling, the school district’s Executive Chef, assures that menu planning, recipe development, and production processes maximize the use of local products.  The freezer is full of shredded local zucchini (for blending into tomato sauce), mirepoix (the age-old combination of onion, celery and carrots used as a base for soups), and other local ingredients to incorporate into meals in the off-season.  The team even prepares mashed potatoes made with local red potatoes and home-made gravy.  Locally-grown and dried pinto beans are sorted and cooked into refried beans or chili.  



Just outside the facility are four giant compost bins designed to turn food scraps from the kitchen into compost for the district’s school gardens, funded through an innovative partnership with the West Greeley Conservation District.  Sometimes El Fuego, the district’s flashy food truck, is parked outside, too.  But typically the truck is out roaming the district, serving up favorites like Baracoa street tacos and the yakisoba noodle bowl to students and school staff.

The district goes beyond local procurement – school gardens, student wellness, and food education are three major areas of focus. Plans are underway to transform a sandy, unused portion of a nearby schoolyard into an educational farm focused on student engagement and employment.  Called “Growing Grounds,” the project vision includes raised bed, an orchard, a teaching kitchen, hoop houses, and a greenhouse. Weld County School District 6 takes innovation and creativity to a new level with its farm to school program!


Inspired by Weld County School District’s 6 and their innovative farm to school programs? USDA is currently accepting applications for the Farm to School Grant Program, which assists eligible entities in implementing farm to school programs that improve access to local foods in eligible schools. Consider applying for a grant to bring more local food into school meals, promote healthy eating habits and expand markets for American farmers and producers. Applications are due December 8, 2016. 

Small steps for using the USDA Farm to School Census

NFSN Staff Thursday, October 13, 2016
By Matthew Benson, USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Community Food Systems


Photo Courtesy: USDA Food and Nutrition Service
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released final results from the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census, showing that more than 42,000 schools across the country are operating farm to school programs and another 10,000 have plans to start in the future. During the 2013-2014 school year, these schools purchased nearly $800 million worth of local products from farmers, ranchers, fishermen and other food producers – a 105 percent increase from the 2011-2012 school year – and tended to more than 7,101 school gardens

The Farm to School Census establishes a national baseline of farm to school activities happening across the country. Whether you’re interested in learning about the national landscape, what’s happening in your state or how your school district participates in farm to school, there are many ways that this information can be used to support your farm to school efforts. Here are three small steps you can take for using Census data to strengthen farm to school activities in your community:

1. Use Farm to School Census data when sharing your story
The Farm to School Census contains data about farm to school activities at the local, state and national levels. Using this data – such as the number of kids impacted by farm to school programs or the dollars spent on local food by schools – can help decision makers understand the benefits farm to school programs have for kids, farmers and communities. Combining validated USDA numbers with your personal experiences and stories can be a powerful tool for raising awareness and spreading your message. 

2. Use Farm to School Census data to guide training and technical assistance efforts
The Census includes information on schools that report wanting to start farm to school activities, as well as challenges school report facing when it comes to buying local foods. It also shows which local foods schools are currently purchasing and which they would like to purchase in the future. Knowing this information allows support service providers to help schools get involved in farm to school and assist their expansion of farm to school efforts. Use the Farm to School Census data explorer to download information on the kinds of training and technical assistance schools in your area need most. 

3. Use Farm to School Census data to measure progress
Track the progress of farm to school activities in your district or state by downloading raw data from both the 2013 and 2015 Farm to School Census. This raw data provides information to track farm to school participation, dollars spent on local foods, and the number of school gardens throughout each state. Comparisons can be made locally, statewide or nationally. Some states, such as Oregon, have begun to use Census data to create statewide goals and action plans. Regional groups, such as Farm to Institution New England (FINE), are also using Census data to measure progress across multiple states.

Find out more ideas for using Census data by watching a recording of the 2015 Farm to School Census webinar, co-hosted by USDA and the National Farm to School Network in August.  

USDA is pleased to celebrate October as National Farm to School Month. All month long we’re working alongside the National Farm to School Network to encourage our partners to take one small step to get informed, get involved, and take action to advance farm to school in their own communities and across the country. Digging into the Census data is one small, easy step you can take today! Happy National Farm to School Month! Check out this new video highlighting Census results and sign-up to receive updates from FNS’s Office of Community Food Systems.

In addition to these three ideas, the National Farm to School Network uses Farm to School Census data to help advocate for policy change. Lawmakers are influenced by research and data, and the Farm to School Census is a great resource for helping legislators understand the positive impacts farm to school programs have on children, families, food producers and communities.

Putting data to work

NFSN Staff Thursday, July 14, 2016
Messaging and advocacy with results from the NFSN Farm to Early Care and Education Survey and USDA Farm to School Census 



By Lacy Stephens, MS, RDN, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate

With abundant information from the National Farm to School Network 2015 National Survey of Early Care and Education Providers and the preK data from the USDA Farm to School Census, we have a better understanding than ever of the current reach of farm to early care and education. 

According to the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) survey, 54 percent of respondents are currently engaging in farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) activities, and the USDA census shows that 32 percent of responding school districts participate in these activities with preschool students. This information not only provides a picture of the current status of farm to early care and education, but can be a valuable tool to spread and scale the movement. NFSN’s survey infographic, fact sheet and full report and USDA’s website and data sets can be used to spark programmatic and policy change at multiple levels and engage all stakeholders in understanding the value of local food procurement, gardening and food and farm education.   

NFSN survey responses will resonate with early care and education providers – the survey’s respondents – who indicate that two of the top reasons for engaging in farm to ECE activities include improving children’s health and providing experiential learning opportunities. These reasons parallel goals in the early care and education community and underscore the opportunity for farm to ECE to create a high quality environment for young children. The survey also demonstrates the wide array of activities encompassed by farm to ECE, including the top three reported activities: teaching children about local food and how it grows, gardening and using local food in meals and snacks. 



State level stakeholders, such as state agencies housing the Child and Adult Care Food Program, those housing early childhood programs and early care and education professional or advocacy organizations, will find appealing the ability to use farm to ECE to meet health and early learning objectives and should note the wide spread interest in growing farm to ECE: in addition to the 54 percent of respondents already engaged, an additional 28 percent plan to start activities in the future. Further, the specific information regarding purchasing practices can help frame and tailor training opportunities. State level stakeholders may be interested to see that farm to ECE activities are being applied in all types of early care and education settings, so regardless of the type of program they work with, these opportunities abound.      

Local, state, and federal policy makers are important stakeholders to reach with data. The infographic and fact sheet developed from the NFSN survey are valuable tools to start these conversations as they not only outline the challenges in early childhood, including obesity, food insecurity and poor quality care and education, but also the opportunity to reach a large number of children and families through early care and education settings. The value of farm to ECE in addressing these problems is reflected in the motivations reported by respondents, including improving children’s health, experiential learning and increasing access to fresh, high quality food. 

Conveying the potential economic impacts is also important in communicating with policy makers. According to the NFSN survey, reporting respondents spent 27 percent of their food budget on local food and 74 percent of those purchasing locally plan to increase their purchases in the future – a huge potential boon to farmers and producers and local economies. Results also identify barriers to local purchasing, including cost and seasonality of food and unreliable supply. Understanding barriers can spur conversation about policies that may alleviate these issues, including increased funding, offering provider trainings and supporting local food supply chain infrastructure. USDA census data allows you to make your message local. Seeing how your state or school district compares to others in applying farm to school in preschool can be a great motivator to take action and catch up with other states or districts.

To spread and scale farm to early care and education and ensure that more children, families, and communities benefit from these valuable activities, we must reach stakeholders and garner support at every level. Equipped with data, resources and passion, farm to early care and education champions are furthering the movement everyday by advocating for programmatic and policy changes that not only directly support farm to early care and education, but create high quality learning environments and improved community food systems. 

For additional resources and ways to get involved by visiting our farm to early care and education and farm to school policy webpages. 

Census says: farm to school is booming!

NFSN Staff Tuesday, March 15, 2016
By Natalie Talis, Policy Associate



Today, the USDA released new data from its 2015 Farm to School Census and the results are clear: farm to school is booming! Thanks to efforts from teachers, school nutrition professionals, farmers, parents, students and other community members like you, farm to school activities have grown from a handful of schools in the late 1990s to reaching 23.6 million students nationwide. 

According to the data, 5,254 school districts - a total of 42,587 schools across all 50 states and Washington D.C. - participate in farm to school activities, including serving local food in the cafeteria, holding taste tests and taking students on field trips to farms and orchards. 

During the 2013-2014 school year, these schools purchased $789 million worth of local products from farmers, ranchers, fishermen and other food producers. That is a 105% increase over the $386 million of local food purchased in 2011-2012 and a huge investment in community economic development. Furthermore, 46 percent of school districts reported they will increase their local food purchases in coming school years. While fruits, vegetables and milk currently top the list of foods schools are most likely to buy locally, many indicated that they’d like to buy more plant-based proteins, grains, meats, poultry and eggs from local suppliers.

Forty-four percent of the school districts also reported having at least one edible school garden. In school year 2013-2014, more than 7,101 school gardens gave students daily access to fresh fruits and vegetables, while also helping them learn where food comes from. This is a 196 percent increase over the 2,401 edible school gardens reported in the 2011-2012 school year when the first census was conducted.

Photo Courtesy: USDA Food and Nutrition Service
The benefits of farm to school activities like these are far reaching. Sixty-six percent of school nutrition director respondents reported experiencing one or more of the following: 
  • Greater community support for school meals
  • Greater acceptance of school meal standards
  • Lower school meal program costs
  • Increased participation in school meals
  • Reduced food waste
These benefits, in addition to positive economic opportunities for local food producers, explain why farm to school is on pace to continue growing. Of the more than 12,500 school districts that responded to the survey, more than 2,000 indicated they plan to start farm to school activities in the future. 

The high interest in these activities confirms why the National Farm to School Network continues its advocacy for supportive policies at the national, state and local levels that will help the farm to school movement grow. To ensure that more school districts feel empowered to start new programs or expand their existing work, we’re advocating for policies like the Farm to School Act of 2015 to be included in the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR). We’re calling on Congress to strengthen and expand the USDA Farm to School Grant Program so more communities have access to farm to school. Show your support for farm to school by adding your name to our petition here

See how your school district stacks up by visiting the census map, which provides detailed information on all 18,000 surveyed school districts. Want to help farm to school efforts in your community grow? Check out our tips for getting started, or contact your National Farm to School Network State or Regional Lead for local information, resources and opportunities. 

Farm to school is a grassroots movement powered by people like you - congratulations for your work in helping farm to school grow! Join us at 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Madison, Wis., this June to continue building momentum and ensure long-term sustainability for local food efforts like these around the county. As this census data shows, together we have the power to affect great change! 

Celebrating 5 years of healthy kids

NFSN Staff Friday, December 11, 2015
Students at Malabon Elementary (Eugene, Ore.) enjoying their Oregon Harvest Lunch.

Happy 5th anniversary to the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA)! In 2010, the National Farm to School Network and our partners were active in supporting HHFKA legislation, with a primary focus on advocating for the creation of the USDA Farm to School Program. The program was successfully included in the HHFKA, and provides competitive grants and technical assistance to help schools, farmers, non-profits, state agencies and other entities implement and expand farm to school activities across the country. 

In the 5 years since its creation, the USDA Farm to School Program has been so well received that demand for grants is five times higher than available funding. The grant program provides initial support for those who are just exploring the possibility of bringing farm to school to their community, and for those who want to expand their farm to school activities by leaps and bounds. That's why we're continuing our advocacy for farm to school at the federal level with the Farm to School Act of 2015

 Left to right: 5th graders at Airport Heights Elementary (Anchorage, Ala.) celebrate their 6th season of gardening. Photo credit: I. Valadez; Guy Lee Elementary (Springfield, Ore.) students at the FOOD for Lane County Youth Farm.

We know that farm to school activities like taste tests, farm visits and school gardens are the training wheels that get kids excited about healthy eating. The 2015 USDA Farm to School Census shows that school participating in farm to school see more kids in the lunch line and less food waste in the trash. Farm to school also benefits local economies and farmers. Local food purchasing grew to $598 million during school year 2013-14 – an increase of more than $212 million since the last Census in 2012.  

We're proud to have worked alongside champions of the legislation that created the USDA Farm to School Program that's strengthening farm to school initiatives across the country. Our network of farm to school practitioners and supporters has been an essential part of this policy process, and together we continue working to make our voices heard in Congress. The farm to school movement has come a long way in the past 5 years - just look at these smiling faces! Here's to healthy kids, thriving farms and vibrant communities everywhere. 

Photo credit, top left to bottom right: DC Greens; S.C.R.A.P. Gallery; Shelburne Farms/VT FEED; DC Greens. 

Help us continue to support federal policies that strengthen farm to school by donating to the National Farm to School Network this season of giving. Your tax deductible donation supports healthy kids and vibrant local food systems across the country. Together, we can make sure all students have access to a bright and healthy future.  

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USDA Farm to School Grants Awarded

NFSN Staff Wednesday, December 02, 2015

In 2013, Alaska Gateway School District received a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant to assess the area’s existing food supply chain, and used the funds to develop a business plan for sustainable farm to school activities – like growing their own produce, and eventually sourcing 40 percent of the school’s food from within Alaska. With 92 percent of Alaska Gateway students on the free and reduced meal plan, school meals are a particularly important source of overall nutrition for these kids.

Two weeks ago, the Alaska Gateway School District found out that they received a USDA Farm to School Implementation Grant to carry out their procurement plan and scale up their farm to school work. The grant will allow them to continue educating students in agriculture and nutrition, as well as grow fresh fruits and vegetables in a year-round greenhouse that can withstand harsh winter temperatures that sometimes dip to -70 degrees Fahrenheit.

A total of 74 communities in 39 states received USDA Farm to School grants in November, and now have a similar opportunity to explore, expand, or scale up their farm to school activities. The 2016 awards total $4.8 million, ranging in size from $15,000 to $100,000, and will impact 2.9 million students. The USDA Farm to School Grant program has always been highly competitive, and the 2016 grants were no exception; 271 applications were submitted from school districts and communities around the country.

While this year’s funding will reach 5,211 schools, there are thousands more eager to have access to these crucial funds. These schools use the grants to invest in their local communities by creating relationships with farmers and ranchers and buying their products. That is why the National Farm to School Network is working with a bipartisan and bicameral group of Congressional champions to incorporate the Farm to School Act of 2015 into the reauthorization package for the Child Nutrition Act.

This bill will increase access to the farm to school grant program and small business opportunities for veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers, as well as expand the grant program’s flexibility to support preschool, summer and after school sites so that all students have access to a healthy future and strong communities like this new group of grantees we are celebrating. 

The National Farm to School Network has connected with supporters on both sides of the aisle to demonstrate the importance of the Farm to School Act and farm to school in general. Watch some of the movement’s champions discuss the benefits of farm to school here: Rep Westerman (R-AR)Rep. Delbene (D-WA)Rep. Davis (R-IL),  Rep. Pingree (D-ME)Rep. Stefanik (R-NY)Rep. Garamendi (D-CA). The Farm to School Act also has strong grassroots backing with hundreds of local and national non-profits signing our petition to Congress in support of this bill.

Help us continue to support federal policies that strengthen farm to school by donating to the National Farm to School Network this season of giving. Your donation supports healthy kids and vibrant local food systems. Together, we can help grow healthy kids, farmers and communities. 

Donate Now

Raise the (barn) roof! Schools invest over half a billion dollars in local communities

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 20, 2015
By Deborah Kane, Director, Office of Community Food Systems, USDA Food and Nutrition Service

 Photo Credit: USDA Food and Nutrition Service

You know what excites me more than October’s succulent pears, more than its sweet squash, and even more than the National Farm to School Month celebrations that happen on each of its days across the nation? $598 million dollars. 

That, according to preliminary results from USDA’s second Farm to School Census, is how much schools across the country spent on local foods during school year 2013-14. Earlier today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this remarkable figure, which represents an increase of $212 million (or 55%) over final results from the last Census, conducted two years ago. 

Preliminary numbers also show that more than 42,000 schools are involved in farm to school activities. Whether through buying local foods, building school gardens, or taking a field trip to a local farm, these programs improve child nutrition and provide dynamic educational experiences for students, all the while providing new market opportunities for local and regional farmers. 

Indeed, the benefits derived from adopting farm to school strategies are significant. The Census found that school districts participating in farm to school activities enjoyed at least one of the following advantages: 
  • Greater support from parents and the community
  • Greater acceptance of the new meal pattern
  • Lower school meal program costs
  • Reduced food waste 
  • Increased participation in school meals
These early results are impressive, but I don’t think they represent all of the extraordinary work happening across the nation. That’s why, from now until November 20, 2015, USDA is encouraging all food service directors to visit the Census site and follow the three easy steps outlined there to make sure their districts are included in the final count. 

 Photo Credit: USDA Food and Nutrition Service
We did a “hoo rah” at USDA when these early results came in – and we’ll surely do another when final results are released in early 2016 – but it should be noted we’ve been celebrating several other milestones and accomplishments this Farm to School Month as well. Earlier this month we cheered on USDA Farm to School grantees, and all those who support them, when distributing a summary of grants awards and impacts over the last three years of USDA Farm to School grant-making. Among other things, the report showed that the 221 awards we’ve made have helped 12,300 schools improve nutritious meal options made with local ingredients for 6.9 million students, while expanding market opportunities for family farmers and ranchers in their communities. And last week, we celebrated the announcement that our work within the Food and Nutrition Service will now be housed in a new Office of Community Food Systems. 

We’re raising the (barn) roof but know that celebrations are always more fun with a friend or two in tow. Please do join us for a review of farm to school accomplishments to date and a discussion of what’s to come for community food systems work at USDA next Thursday, October 29, at 2:00 pm ET. 

To stay up to date on all of the latest news from the Office of Community Food Systems, sign up for our e-letter

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