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National Farm to School Network


The Last Mile

NFSN Staff Wednesday, July 22, 2020

By Karen Spangler, Policy Director, and Erika Rincon, Program and Policy Assistant

Whether you’re a farmer, food bank or school serving meals to-go during the COVID-19 pandemic, the last mile is frequently the hardest equation to solve. It’s one that the USDA “Farmers to Families” program has aimed to cover, with $3 billion in contracts with vendors to provide nonprofits with “truck to trunk” food distribution. But as food banks and other community organizations apply for deliveries from the approved vendors, that last mile – getting the delivered food into the hands of the hungry – is turning out to be a considerable barrier. The CEO at the Food Bank of the Rockies says that distributing food donated through the Farmers to Families program is costing $40,000 per month just for transportation. Since May 15, the San Antonio Food Bank has spent more than $83,000 to store and distribute the food they’ve received from an event company that was awarded the USDA contract for the region.

Like food banks, schools all over the country have drastically altered how they feed kids during this pandemic, pivoting to outdoor distribution, grab-and-go pre-packaged food and social distancing in their kitchens. But the last mile for students – between food distribution sites and their front doors –  can be the hardest. In the first few weeks of distribution this spring, some schools saw only a fraction of their usual free and reduced-price eligible students showing up to collect meals, sometimes attributing this to lack of transportation. So some schools mobilized their dormant fleet of school buses and drivers to deliver meals to distribution locations throughout their districts.

For low-income families who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or who have received Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) to feed their kids while school meals are unavailable, the expansion of online EBT purchases offers the potential to make purchases without risking exposure. However, in most states this expedited pilot includes only a few big retailers, leaving out local and regional producers who could serve this market. Moreover, online EBT customers do not have the option for pickup in many states, but delivery fees can’t be covered by SNAP or P-EBT funds (which must be used only for food). Immediate measures to help smaller retailers deliver during the pandemic, as well as long-term solutions to make sure all eligible retailers can accept online SNAP, have been proposed in Congress but not yet passed.  

For those who are able to stay home, delivery services spare customers exposure from going into grocery stores with long lines or tight spaces. But the increasing reliance on convenient delivery means that the last mile – from the warehouse, grocery store, or restaurant – is served by workers who are risking exposure. 

Food banks and local food pantries also face their own challenges in the last mile, the miles that patrons have to travel to access these distribution sites. A recent survey by Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, reported that 40% of clients are getting help from a food bank for the first time. For these new customers, first identifying and then traveling to a distribution location can be challenging, especially when avoiding public transportation. Some food banks have undertaken mapping projects to link customers with resources and help them find out what’s available in their area. 

Farmers who relied on institutional sales to restaurants or schools have been left with a surplus in their fields, but for them, the last mile to the food bank is expensive and time-consuming. The cost of harvest, transportation, and navigating the patchwork of operating hours of local food pantries – often narrow windows of time, constrained by volunteers (many of whom are elderly at at high-risk) and a lack of storage capability at the distribution site – means extra difficulty in getting excess produce to its destination. New York state is trying to solve this problem through $5,000 refundable tax credits to farmers for donating crops, and $25 million in funds for food banks to buy from local and regional producers and invest in storage capacity. This approach is faster, more flexible, and more cost-effective than the federal Farmers to Families approach.

The “last mile” is often an afterthought in government programs, as evidenced by the Farmers to Families dilemma. COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to evaluate our supply chain and the security of our food system. During and after this public health crisis, public investments should increase the capacity of local and regional food systems to bridge that last mile. 

USDA Announces 2020 Farm to School Grant Recipients

NFSN Staff Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Congratulations to the newest USDA Farm to School Grant Program recipients! USDA announced on Monday that a record-breaking 159 projects in 46 states, the District of Columbia and Guam have been awarded farm to school grants to explore, expand or scale up their farm to school activities. The 2020 awards total $12.1 million, and will impact 2.5 million students in 7,610 schools. 

Twenty-six National Farm to School Network Core and Supporting Partner organizations have been selected for 2020 grants, including: 

Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries
Alaska Department of Education & Early Development
Arizona Department of Education
Community Alliance with Family Farmers
Guidestone Colorado
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Georgia Department of Education
Indiana State Department of Health
Kansas State Department of Education
Third Sector New England
Michigan Department of Education
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
Nebraska Department of Education
Nevada Department of Agriculture
New Hampshire Department of Education
New Mexico Department of Public Education
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
Oklahoma State Department of Education
Pennsylvania Department of Education
The Food Trust
South Carolina Department of Agriculture
Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets
Virginia Department of Education
Washington State Department of Agriculture
West Virginia Department of Agriculture

Additionally, we’re thrilled to see that Hardin Public School District 17 H & 1– a former National Farm to School Network Seed Change Cohort Member, a current representative on our Native Communities Advisory Council, and one of the schools featured last year as a Native Farm to School Champion in our partnership with the Intertribal Agriculture Council – has received an Implementation grant to develop a traditional foods curriculum and build a high tunnel and greenhouse on school grounds. 

New this year, USDA has also awarded two Regional Farm to Institution Grants. First Nations Development Institute, serving tribal communities in the Midwest, and Shelburne Farms, serving school districts in the Northeast, have been awarded grants to develop and deliver farm to school training, create and disseminate information on developing farm to school programs, and provide ongoing coaching and technical assistance to farm to school practitioners in their regions. 

National Farm to School Network was a key leader in advocating for the creation of the USDA Farm to School Grant program, as well as advocating for additional funding for the program through appropriations bills for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 – which have allowed this year’s grants to be as substantial as they are. We know that the program is an essential tool for improving the health of our children, our food system and our local economies. And as the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts continue to be a reality in our country, these benefits of farm to school are more important than ever. Congratulations, again, to the 2020 grantees – we look forward to watching your farm to school projects grow! 

USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and Local Food

NFSN Staff Monday, April 27, 2020

On Friday, April 17, USDA announced the USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. While there is still much unknown about how the program will be implemented, it may be an opportunity for local product to make its way to emergency feeding programs, addressing a vital need for market opportunities for local producers and food access needs in communities. The program aims to support producers and consumers with two approaches:

  • Direct Support for Farmers and Ranchers
  • USDA Purchase and Distribution 
What You Need to Know 
  • Direct Support for Farmers and Ranchers - USDA is in the process of developing rules for how support will be distributed and who will be eligible. NFSN and partners are working to ensure all farmers are able to access this program by pushing USDA to target local and regional producers and to outline the measures it will take to equitably include producers of color. What you can do: We anticipate a brief rulemaking process to direct how this money will be distributed. We encourage partners to be prepared to submit comments. We also encourage partners to work with their state departments of agriculture to put pressure on USDA to commit to the measures the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition outlines.
  • USDA Purchase and Distribution - On Friday, April 24, USDA opened solicitations (view RFP here) for regional and local distributors who can coordinate purchase of agricultural products, the assembly of commodity boxes and delivery to identified non-profit organizations that can receive, store and distribute food items. Included in the application is a request for applicants to describe how they intend to support small farmers and those serving local and regional markets. Applicants are also responsible for identifying non-profit organizations for distribution, and this could potentially include schools and early care sites. What you can do: Share relevant information (see links below) with local food hubs, intermediaries, producers, and relevant food businesses. Awardees are expected to capitalize on exisiting networks and relationships, so this is a vital opportunity for local and regional food networks to activitate local distribution chains.  
Additional Resources and Information

USDA Announces 2019 Farm to School Grant Recipients

NFSN Staff Monday, July 22, 2019

Congratulations to the newest USDA Farm to School Grant Program recipients! USDA announced last week that a record-breaking 126 projects in 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have been awarded farm to school grants to explore, expand or scale up their farm to school activities. The 2019 awards total $9 million, and will impact 3.2 million students in 5,400 schools. 

Eighteen National Farm to School Network Core and Supporting Partner organizations were selected for 2019 grants, including: 

Alabama - Feeding the Gulf Coast
California - Center for Ecoliteracy
Colorado - Livewell Colorado
Illinois - Seven Generations Ahead
Iowa - Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children
Kansas - KC Healthy Kids
Maine - Healthy Communities of the Capital Area
Minnesota - Minnesota Department of Education; Reviewing the Countryside
Montana - Montana Office of Public Instruction
Nebraska - Center Rural Affairs
Nevada - Urban Roots Garden Classrooms 
Ohio - Cuyahoga County District Board of Health
Pennsylvania - Pennsylvania Department of Education
Rhode Island - Farm Fresh Rhode Island
Vermont - Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets
Virginia - Fairfax County Public Schools
Wisconsin - WI Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection 

National Farm to School Network is also excited to be the recipient of a grant, which will allow us to offer 10 unique experiential learning opportunities in conjunction with our 10th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 20-24, 2020. Save the date! We hope you'll join us and take advantage of this unique opportunity to see innovative farm to school efforts in action and network with farm to school stakeholders from across the country! 

This year’s grants are recording breaking - both in total number of projects supported and total amount of funding awarded - thanks to increased discretionary funding from Congress through appropriations bills for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. But, this increased funding is temporary. Annual mandatory funding for the program is only $5 million. The extra boost of appropriations funds allowed USDA to awards 52 more grants this year than the previous highest year of 2016, when 74 were awarded. It’s important that we continue to advocate for a permanent increase in funding for this highly valuable program so more communities can access these important resources, grow new programs, and experience the benefits of farm to school. 

That's why the National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are working with a bipartisan and bicameral group of Congressional champions to strengthen this important grant program and support other farm to school priorities with the Farm to School Act of 2019. The bill, sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), David Perdue (R-GA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Susan Collins (R-ME) and Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), will expand funding for and programmatic scope of the highly successful USDA Farm to School Grant Program, including: 

  • Increasing annual funding to $15 million and increasing the grant award maximum to $250,000,
  • Advancing equity by prioritizing grants that engage diverse farmers and serve high-need schools, 
  • Fully including early care and education sites, summer food service sites & after school programs, and 
  • Increasing access among tribal schools to traditional foods, especially from tribal producers. 

Your voice is crucial in this advocacy work! Take 2 minutes to add your name to our petition and/or our organizational sign-on letter in support of the Farm toSchool Act. Have an extra five minutes? Make an even greater impact by calling your members of Congress and asking them to co-sponsor this bill. Find step-by-step instructions and a call script for calling your members of Congress here.   

The USDA Farm to School Grant Program is an essential tool to improve the health of our children, our food system and our local economies. Join us in calling on Congress to continue and expand its support for this highly impactful program! 

National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.

NCAT and NFSN Awarded USDA Cooperative Agreement

NFSN Staff Thursday, June 06, 2019

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and National Farm to School Network (NFSN) are pleased to announce our partnership with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s Office of Community Food Systems (OCFS) to develop farm to school trainings for agricultural producers.

The goal of the partnership is to help agricultural producers build their capacity to launch or expand efforts to market to schools.

Gwen Holcomb, director of the project for OCFS, announced the farm to school training and curricula cooperative agreement on May 21. She noted that this is an important project for the agricultural producers who can grow, produce, and distribute food for Child Nutrition Programs in schools and school districts. “With more than 30 million students participating in the National School Lunch Program each day, schools provide a large, stable, long-term market for producers,” said Holcomb.

To assist producers in entering this market, NCAT and NSFN will conduct a needs assessment among agricultural producers in collaboration with state agencies (SAs) and then develop curricula. We will promote and execute trainings that use a tiered, train-the-trainer approach. 

This national three-year, $1.8 million project will be co-managed by NCAT and NFSN. NCAT, headquartered in Butte, Montana, has over 40 years of experience providing training, education and technical assistance in sustainable agriculture, local food systems, and energy efficiency and conservation. NSFN is a national information, advocacy, and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing, school gardens, and food and agriculture education into schools and early care and education settings. Assisting with the needs assessment and project evaluation are independent evaluators from New York University.

“We are so pleased to be part of this national effort to help producers access and enhance their marketing to schools and to get more healthy, local farm products in school cafeterias,” said Devona Bell, NCAT’s Sustainable Agricultural Program Director.

“Schools across the country are eager to purchase from local producers and put more fresh food on students’ plates,” said Helen Dombalis, NFSN Executive Director. “This project provides a much-needed opportunity to educate and engage more farmers and producers in market opportunities with schools. When schools buy from local producers, it’s a win for kids, farmers and communities.” 

Read the full press release here.

Farm to Summer

NFSN Staff Wednesday, July 18, 2018

By Elizabeth Esparza, Communications Intern

The summer months can be a vulnerable time for many students and their families who rely on school meals. At the same time, summer’s plentiful produce offers an opportunity to make sure that these students don’t have to worry about missing meals.

Farm to summer brings the core elements of farm to school into the USDA Summer Food Service Program to ensure that students receive nutritious meals when school is out of session. This summer, the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) anticipates providing over 200 million free meals to students across the country. SFSP’s flexibility offers a great chance to use seasonal produce, to maintain and enjoy harvests from school gardens, and to engage students and their families in education and enrichment opportunities in addition to summer meals.

Farm to summer programs are a natural extension of farm to school. For USDA’s Office of Community Food Systems, the two main opportunities of farm to summer are local sourcing and garden and agriculture education. Whether meals are sourced directly from farms and farmers markets, an intermediary source, or from school and community gardens, summer meal sites can enhance their summer meals with educational opportunities to attract more children, to engage community partners, and to ensure the sustainability of the program. The goals are to serve healthy, fresh food to children while school is out, to support the local economy throughout the peak growing season, and to provide food and agriculture related opportunities to children during the summer.

Massachusetts Farm to School is taking advantage of bountiful farms and longer days to serve summer meals at local farmers markets. Offering meals at the markets has been a beneficial  supplement to other meal programs offered throughout the week. Markets are often hosted at different times than other meals, such as evenings and weekends, and they offer even more chances to raise awareness about what is in season and introduce new avenues for families to access local food. 

One way Massachusetts Farm to School is encouraging participation in meals at the market is through their Healthy Incentives Program (HIP). With HIP, families can earn extra money for SNAP/EBT by buying at participating farmers markets, mobile markets, farm stands or community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.This can allow families to access more locally grown fruits and vegetables while simultaneously helping local farmers.

In Kentucky, the Kentucky-Grown Vegetable Incentive Program (K-VIP) is making sure that hungry students get fresh, nutritious, and locally grown fruits and vegetables throughout the summer by offering a financial incentive for summer meal sites to include Kentucky-grown produce. School food program sponsors can be reimbursed for a third of all fruits and vegetables purchased from Kentucky farmers, giving schools the chance to engage with farmers they might not have before. Almost half of all K-VIP sponsors had never worked with local farmers or producers before. By providing funding for summer food program sponsors that purchase produce directly from Kentucky farmers, K-VIP helps increase participation in summer meal programs and connect local farmers with schools. 

Whether they are connecting with families at a variety of sites, offering enrichment opportunities alongside their summer meals, or providing opportunities to connect schools and farms during the most abundant growing season, farm to summer programs throughout the country are working hard to ensure that students receive fresh and nutritious meals while school is out. 

To learn more about the opportunities and benefits of farm to school in the summer months, watch a recording of our July 2018 Trending Topics Webinar: Farm to Summer.  

USDA Announces 2018 Farm to School Grant Recipients

NFSN Staff Thursday, June 21, 2018

Congratulations to the newest USDA Farm to School Grant Program recipients! USDA announced today that 73 communities in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Guam  have been awarded farm to school grants to explore, expand, or scale up their farm to school activities. The 2018 awards total $5.2 million, and will impact 2.8 million students.

While this year’s funding will reach 6,006 schools, there are thousands more eager to have access to these crucial funds. In fact, 296 communities submitted applications this grant cycle, requesting nearly $21 million — four times higher than current available funding.

That's why the National Farm to School Network is working with a bipartisan and bicameral group of Congressional champions to strengthen this important grant program and support other farm to school priorities with the Farm to School Act. While the Farm to School Act has not been incorporated into current drafts of the farm bill, we’re continuing to work with our Congressional champions to find a legislative path to move these priorities forward.

Your voice is crucial in this ongoing work to advocate and advance farm to school at the federal level. If you haven’t yet done so, please take 2 minutes to add your name to our citizen sign-on letter and/or organizational sign-on letter in support of the Farm to School Act. And, continue sharing your #farmtoschool stories and successes with your members of Congress and on social media.

The USDA Farm to School Grant Program is an essential tool to improve the health of our children, our food system and our local economies. Join us in calling on Congress to continue and expand its support for this highly impactful program.

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:

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