Solutions: School lunch’s getting a farm-fresh makeover. Will it last?

Farm-to-school initiatives paid for with federal money are getting fresh, nutritious food to kids and helping rural economies.
Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
Derrick Hoffman surveys the broccoli plants at his farm in Greeley, Colorado on August 18, 2023. When the broccoli is harvested, it will be sold to local school districts and served in school cafeterias around Northern Colorado.

Credit: Rae Solomon / KUNC

Credit: Rae Solomon / KUNC

Rae Solomon / KUNC Derrick Hoffman surveys the broccoli plants at his farm in Greeley, Colorado on August 18, 2023. When the broccoli is harvested, it will be sold to local school districts and served in school cafeterias around Northern Colorado.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Thanks to renewed efforts by the federal government to encourage farmers and schools to work more closely together, more food’s coming directly from farms rather than traditional institutional sources. School districts say they appreciate having more fresh, healthy food options and some farmers say they appreciate the guidance to help them close deals with school districts.

It’s a hot, buggy morning and Derrick Hoffman is poking around a densely packed row of bushy cherry tomato plants. Behind him, rows of peppers, eggplant, kale and broccoli are still soaking up the sun.

But in the cherry tomato patch, it’s already harvest season. Hoffman doesn’t want them all to turn red too quickly, because once these tomatoes leave his 100-acre farm on the outskirts of Greeley, Colorado, they have to fit with the lunch service schedule at a local public school.

“These will go to Greeley-Evans School District here just down the road,” he explains. “We’re five miles from their warehouse.”

In about a week, kids will be snacking on them in nearby school cafeterias.

Hoffman’s tomatoes are part of a growing farm-to-school movement that is revolutionizing the humble school lunch. When farm-to-school programming works as designed, kids fill their plates with fresh, nutritious food, and local farm economies get a major boost, creating a more resilient regional food supply chain.

It’s a seemingly simple idea that has lots of benefits. Sunny Baker, senior director of programs and policy at the National Farm to School Network said the issue is truly bipartisan. ”Farm to school is really easy,” she said. “We call it a triple win. It’s a win for kids. It’s a win for farmers, it’s a win for school and the community.”

Getting all that local food into schools has proven frustratingly complicated. And while up-to-date data on the reach of farm to school activity is lacking, it’s clear that there’s still lots of untapped potential for growth when it comes to getting farm-fresh foods into school cafeterias.

Generous federal funding

Tapping that potential has recently gained new urgency at the federal level. The USDA explicitly connects the idea with improving the nation’s food supply chain resiliency and expanding local foods into schools is now a priority, backed by generous funding to make it a reality.

Since 2013, the USDA funneled about $84 million to states for general farm to school programs. Then last school year, the department dramatically increased its spending for farm to school programs. At least $200 million directly funds local food purchases and an additional $60 million is earmarked for related infrastructure, coordination and technical assistance.

The money gives states lots of flexibility to decide how to deploy the funds in ways that work well for local conditions. Other funding supports nutrition education, food processing equipment, staff training and other initiatives that support local food in schools.

Baker described that investment as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give school lunch a head-to-toe makeover by integrating it into local food systems.

“One of the best things that can come out of this massive influx of money is going to be that we’re developing really incredible examples of how this can work,” she said. “We’re learning what’s possible.”

The funds also trickled down to local school districts, in the form of $8,000 in grants to buy farm-fresh food through those food hubs.

“That was huge,” said Julie Udelhofen, food services director for the Clear Lake School District in northern Iowa. “I jumped right on that.”

Last year, the first year those funds were available, Udelhofen maxed out the grants and then some, buying an array of fresh produce for her students. She said the grants were just a small fraction of her overall budget for food, but they still made an impact in her small school district. “As I saw that product come in and the freshness, the color, the flavor, it just made it all worth it,” Udelhofen said.

Some challenges

Before the recent boost from federal funds, farm-to-school activity was growing steadily, but slowly.

Cindy Long, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Nutrition Service, which runs the permanent Farm to School program, said she’s seen the many roadblocks slowing things down firsthand.

“We often hear that schools and producers initially don’t talk the same language,” Long said. “Schools think about ‘Oh, I need 7,500 servings of this.’ And farmers think in terms of bushels or crates.”

Udelhofen’s first encounter with farm-to-school programming happened years ago, when she worked in food services at a private school in Iowa. The benefits were immediately obvious, and she was hooked.

But when she moved into the role of food services director for the public schools in Clear Lake — a school district of about 1,400 kids — she had no choice but to revert to business as usual, ordering food from mainline institutional food distribution companies.

“The big box companies can do it with the economies of scale and it’s less expensive. So how do I justify spending more money?” Udelhofen said. “I have a budget I have to stay within.”

‘More producers into the arena’

A structured procurement system, which involves a bureaucratic bidding system, can also be off-putting for farmers, contributing to a shortage on the supply side of locally produced food.

Daniel Bock, director of Nutrition Services for the Greeley-Evans School District in northern Colorado, said she would gladly spend even more of her budget on local foods if more food was available.

“For the producers who are interested in keeping their products local and selling to an institution like a school district, we’ve kind of tapped all that,” she said. “We need to bring more producers into the arena.”

Some of the new federal money coming down is designed to help other farmers find their own paths to farm-to-school success. It funds training and technical assistance for producers in order to help get them in the game.

But there’s a catch with this wealth of federal support: The fire hose of extra funding runs out at the end of this school year, which means all of these new systems being propped up now need to be self-sustaining soon.

Udelhofen isn’t sure whether her local food service can outlive the temporary funding, but she’ll keep it going as long as her budget allows.

About the Solutions Journalism Network

This story is republished through our partner, the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues.