TALKING SHOP: Future of Our Farms Summit, Wilmington, DE, Dec. 4-5

Expanding farm-to-school programs create opportunities for farmers … and children
Although it’s a market fraught with challenges, schools and colleges are an important outlet for local producers … and an opportunity to shape future consumers.

By Dan Sullivan


How to contact the farm-to-school experts mentioned in this piece

Mark Wall
National Farm to School Coordinator at the Center for Food and Justice

Claire Homitzky
Community food projects director for the New Jersey Urban Ecology Program at Rutgers University. (Claire heads up New Jersey’s farm-to-school efforts.)

Lynn James, MS RD
Clinical nutritionist and Pennsylvania Extension specialist, working with public schools and the farm-to-school program to get farm-fresh foods in Pennsylvania lunchrooms.


Additional farm-to-school publications, people and resource groups

Farm to School: An Introduction for Food Service Professionals, Food Educators, Parents and Community Leaders
This booklet was developed by Alison Harmon, Ph.D., at The Pennsylvania State University in order to introduce school food service professionals to the idea of purchasing regional and seasonal foods for school meals directly from farmers in their community. To request free copies of this excellent informational and resource guide (perfect for passing along to food service directors in your area) contact Dr. Alison Harmon at

How Local Farmers and School Food Service Buyers are Building Alliances
(A USDA publication)

Crunch Lunch Manual: Farm-to-School case study
(A publication of the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program--SAREP)

Direct Marketing to Schools—A New Opportunity for Family Farmers
(Another SAREP publication)

Community Food Security Coalition
offers successful program examples and a host of additional resources, including potential funding partners. Marion Kalb is the national farm-to-school coordinator for this organization.

National Farm To School Program
Hosted by the Center for Food and Justice, the website at has great links to success stories focuses on the national program’s four objectives of purchasing from local farmers; encouraging curricula that includes growing, seasonality, and health; school gardens as a way to connect children with the food they eat and as cross-curriculum teaching tools; and farm tours and other farmer/classroom activities.

FoodRoutes Network
As part its efforts to rebuild local, community-based food systems, this nonprofit group has established a farm-to-school information and resource page at

North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
For another example of a success story between one state’s agriculture department and the federal Department of Defense—whereby National School Lunch Program funds are used to purchase food from local farmers—go to

Cornell Farm to School Program
Go to
to see how New York’s land-grant university is networking to increase the amount of locally grown food served in the states schools, colleges and universities. This site offers a rich vein of state, regional and national farm-to-school resources.


Action Alert
ALERT! The Farm to School program has gone bi-partisan
Senator Arnold Spector (R-PA) will now join Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), in his fight to bring locally grown products into school cafeteria across the nation. This new bill is S. 1755, the Farm to Cafeteria Projects Act. Support this initiative now >


Posted December 17, 2003: When it comes to childhood nutrition in public schools, a disparity exists that’s a contradiction on a grand scale, keynote speaker Carol Tucker Foreman told the packed ballroom gathered for the 5th Annual Future of Our Farms Summit in Wilmington, Delaware in early December.

“[Combating] hunger in the land of plenty and how we might stop our children from dying of obesity” are two serious, and connected, problems that local farmers and educators can play a critical role in addressing, said Foreman, director of Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. (Foreman shared the keynote spotlight with Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.)

The growing Farm to School movement seeks to tackle these and other challenges head-on by connecting small farmers, school food service professionals, food educators, parents, community leaders and, most importantly, kids. Goals include providing alternate markets for local farmers, delivering the healthiest and most nutritious food possible to schoolchildren, and sharing lessons about respecting food producers and the natural world intended to carry over into adulthood.

Tucker unabashedly suggested that public policy should encourage and support these relationships rather than catering to those that line the pockets of junk-food purveyors at our children’s expense. “Fifty percent of our schools have contracts with soda companies,” she said. “These schools have a vested interest in selling more soda. Knowing what we know about obesity and disease and diet, making money off selling kids soft drinks is a form of child abuse. It ought to be against the law.” Unfortunately, she said, USDA nutrition standards don’t apply to vending machines and snack bars, and funding for programs that improve nutrition in schools is sorely lacking.

Connecting the dots

Facilitating a pair of afternoon workshops on the first day of the conference (appropriately themed “Our Future Grows Here”), Mark Wall, national Farm to School coordinator for the Center for Food and Justice, echoed Foreman’s sentiments that public policy ought to lead the way in getting healthy food into our public schools. With a willingness on the part of local policymakers to educate themselves and other inherent and potential players, he said, it can work, at least at the grass-roots level.


“We’ve had food service personnel come to us and say ‘I didn’t know it was legal to buy locally,’” Wall said, elaborating that, depending on the relationships and the politics, some school food service directors simply buy directly from farmers. (With only about 400 school districts having such arrangements across the country so far, there’s plenty of room to grow.) “Sometimes it’s as easy as [a farmer] talking to a food-service director. Other times a farmer may hear ‘Sure, go to my distributor, fill out the appropriate paperwork, and get liability insurance.’”

While relationships between food service contractors, their suppliers and food service directors can be guarded and steeped in history, Wall says, there are ways to grease the squeaky wheel in order to ensure that local farmers are in the loop. “Food service directors might say to a contractor ‘If you buy locally, we’re going to support you when your contract comes up.’” Parents who understand the value of local food and request it in their children’s schools offer another valuable inroad, Wall suggested.

With outlets such as farmer’s markets offering a much higher premium for farm-fresh produce without the hassles of dealing with institutional bureaucracy, why should farmers bother? Wall said it’s about thinking long-term. “What we’re doing here is educating future farmer’s market customers. The more a person appreciates how something tastes, rather than what it costs, these eaters will be future farmer’s market customers and supporting local farmers.”

Just as chefs, farmer’s markets and CSAs help build bridges between farmers and the eating public, Wall said, schools offer another valuable, and largely untapped, inroad. If selling to a local school or district doesn’t make practical or economic sense, he said, other teaching opportunities exist, such as setting up a farm tour, a taste test, or participating in a career day.

A program in action

Claire Homitzky, community food projects director for the New Jersey Urban Ecology Program at Rutgers University, outlined the basic goals and some of the day-to-day challenges she faces coordinating a Farm to School program for the Garden State. She, too, pointed to education as a critical component of a successful program, this time focusing in on the students themselves. School gardens, farm tours, composting workshops, agricultural education and nutritional literacy all support this effort, she said.

Inherent challenges, Homitzky explained, include the seasonality of the product, limited capacity for production and processing (at a scale appropriate to suppliers and processors), distribution, and a mechanism for payment that works for both parties.

Solutions, she said, include:

  • menus that take into account the seasonality of fruits and vegetables
  • using shelf-stable and minimally processed produce such as onions and potatoes
  • producer cooperatives for processing (for efficiency, consistency, and creating value-added products such as individual packaging)
  • grower cooperatives for meeting volume needs
  • making the best use of existing distribution channels, and
  • introducing farmers to the idea of billing (versus cash and carry).

Food service personnel must also be recognized as professionals and given the tools to do their job well, she said. “There’s a tendency within the Farm to School movement to sort of demonize food service directors,” Homitzky suggests. “They typically care deeply about children and their nutrition.” It’s not intention that falls short, she said, but more often funding and the accompanying resources. “There needs to be a shift in attitude about [school] food service professionals. They are not regarded as educators, and I think that’s a real failure.”

Homitzky pointed to a relationship between the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and the USDA’s Commodity Surplus Distribution Program as an example of what’s working within her state’s program. “Commodities account for basically about 20 percent of all the food that’s used in the school lunch program,” she said.

Thanks to a somewhat unlikely partner, the Department of Defense (DOD)—whose large-volume buying power and purchasing expertise the USDA taps for the National School Lunch Program—New Jersey public schools gain access to large quantities of fruits and vegetables at the Philadelphia Terminal Market (a major East Coast produce hub). Through this mechanism, Homitzky said, the state agency is able to benefit from the commodity surplus program while channeling federal dollars to local farmers. Furthermore, she said, the DOD buyer is able to purchase fruits and vegetables in a short timeframe with the added luxury of prioritizing quality over price. “New Jersey had one of the first pilot programs with DOD,” dating back to 1994, Homitzky said. By 2003, that relationship meant 393,304 pounds of produce at an expenditure of $246 million, she said.

But states differ in which department administers the Commodity Surplus Distribution Program, and this relationship with the DOD can vary considerably between states. A major stumbling block, Homitzky said, is funding for the DOD Fresh Program, which is currently capped at $50 million (as part of the 2002 Farm Bill). “It’s working in 40 states, and it seems to be working differently in all 40 states,” she said.

We can do better

Because of the varying relationships between the DOD and state agencies, it’s difficult to tell just how the federal program is benefiting local farmers or supporting sustainable relationships across the board, Wall said, challenging those attending the Farm to School workshop to strive to improve what’s been accomplished to date. “We’re all trying to help the farmers, but it’s important to realize if you are going to help the farmer you have to do it in a way that’s better than we’ve done—in ways that create meaningful relationships.”

This means forging new partnerships and demonstrating connections that might not seem obvious at first glance, he said. “We’re trying to put the farm crisis problem together with the childhood obesity problem and figure out ways to get farmers and food service personnel together,” he said. (Later in the conference, clinical nutritionist and Pennsylvania Extension specialist Lynn James cited studies linking fresh fruits and vegetables to lower incidences of obesity, a disorder which now affects 15 percent of school-aged children across the United States.)

“There are a lot of potential partners out there, from the Farm Bureau, to the Department of Health, to various food groups and even dental groups,” Wall said. “It’s not hard to find people who want to have improved childhood nutrition or, for that matter, want to help farmers.”

The challenge is putting it all together, understanding the constraints of your environment, and fine-tuning your methods to the particular situation, Wall said. On colleges campuses, you can “market taste and the cafeteria can charge a bit more,” two leverage points that make Farm to College programs easier to manage than K-12 public school programs, he said. And just behind one potential solution, another challenge may be hiding. For instance, while innovative programs such as farmer’s market salad bars have met with success in primary and secondary schools, hygiene concerns connected to kids serving themselves have some food service directors leery of going down that path. Then there are policy obstacles that get in the way of the farm-fresh model (such as a school lunch program prohibition against serving the same kind of fruit two days in a row). “Direct sales to public school K through 12 has a lot of challenges,” Wall conceded. “We need policy changes and for farmers to step up in a different way.”

In spite of all the challenges, he remains optimistic about the task to create a win-win situation for local farmers and schoolchildren. What’s key, Wall said, is a willingness to pull the available resources—be they funding partners, education efforts, and mechanisms for implementation—together to create working models tailored to each local situation. “It all has value,” he said.