Farm to Cafeteria (also called Farm to School) programs are rapidly growing across North America. As schools find ways to incorporate locally sourced, fresh vegetables into their menus and farmers learn how to grow for this niche market, the movement can lead the way in transforming our food systems.
School Lunch Programs
Since its inception during the Works Progress Administration, the U.S. school lunch program has existed to serve two populations: farmers and children; the Great Depression left both in need of assistance. Impoverished children were not getting enough to eat and farmers couldn’t find enough buyers for their crops. The U.S. government instituted a system of purchasing surplus farm products and offering them to children at school for little or no money. This practice grew into the National School Lunch Act, which continues today as the federally funded program that falls under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Canada, by contrast, does not have a nationally funded school lunch program. Lunch food for low-income students comes from provincial and local government, as well as charity programs. A handful of these programs focus on sourcing local food. Many argue that by providing school lunch, Canada could improve child health, which ranks at 37 out of 41 developed nations.
School Lunch Works, Farm to Cafeteria Works Better
School lunch programs are popular around the world because they provide all children with access to regular, nutritionally balanced meals. Eating lunch improves attention span, increasing student engagement and performance. Regular, healthy lunches also help combat public health issues related to food choices, such as diabetes and obesity. Farm to cafeteria programs go a step further by maximizing the nutrition and appeal of school lunches.
The major benefits of a farm to cafeteria program include:
- Kids eat more vegetables, especially populations with the least amount of previous access to fresh produce. One study found that students ate 37 per cent more vegetables and 11 per cent more fruits after a school system began sourcing locally. Programs that include school gardens and/or hands-on food preparation further increase the willingness of students to try new things and eat more vegetables.
- Though data is limited, preliminary studies find that eating more vegetables improves student academic performance.
- Freshness and nutrition become institutional values.
- The local economy grows. School cafeterias represent large purchasing power. When schools buy from local farms, more money stays in the local economy, more jobs become available, and farm income becomes more sustainable.
- The environment benefits from fewer food transportation miles and less food waste from discarded lunches.
- Farm to cafeteria programs educate the community. Kids learn what healthy food looks and tastes like, where their food comes from, and, in some cases, how to grow it – a process that develops each student’s food literacy. Farmers learn how to better supply healthy foods to their community. Parents and other community members learn about the benefits of buying fresh, local foods.
- With more stakeholders involved in the food system – growing, buying, and eating local foods on a larger scale than the farmers’ market model supports – the food system becomes more resilient.
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