New $2 Million Project to Help Small Farms
Three years ago, skeptical officials of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District launched a pilot program designed by Occidental College researchers to encourage students to eat more fresh produce -- and to support local farmers.
From a modest start in a single elementary school, the farmers’ market fruit and salad bar program is now being expanded into all of the district’s 14 schools, thanks to a strong lunchtime demand from students for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Having helped to demonstrate the feasibility of the concept, Occidental is now heading a national consortium of universities, school districts and non-profit groups to develop new “farm-to-school” programs in California, New Jersey, and New York.
Funded by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the farm-to-school project is an innovative effort to improve children’s health and give small and medium-sized farms access to a part of the $16 billion school food services market.
“This will enable us to identify the opportunities that exist and the obstacles that must be overcome, while providing the kind of outreach and training needed to help others create and institutionalize their own programs across the country,” said Robert Gottlieb, a professor of environmental policy and director of Occidental’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI).
“We can envision farm-fresh food and gardens integrated into literally every school district in the country,” added project co-director Michelle Mascarenhas.
Collaborating with Occidental are researchers from UC Davis, Rutgers, Cornell, and Penn State, as well as officials from the California Department of Education, the Davis Joint Unified School District, the Community Food Security Coalition, and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.
The farm-to-school project is a response to a growing body of evidence that significant numbers of school-age children are suffering from what the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called “an epidemic of obesity.”
At the same time, it addresses the steady decline in the number of small and medium-sized family farms, which are being squeezed out of business by high growing costs, low prices for their products, and poor access to markets.
By expanding the market for local farm produce, farm-to-school programs can create a major new sales opportunity for family farmers as well as provide healthier food for school lunches and an effective means of educating children about nutrition, said Gottlieb, Henry R. Luce professor of urban environmental studies.
In the Santa Monica district, the farm-to-school program has evolved from a pilot program to a district-wide success story. The number of students choosing the salad bar option at lunch has increased more than five-fold and the district’s Food Services program has changed its name to Food and Nutrition Services, proudly declaring that it is the “home of the farmers’ market salad bar program.” Today, about one-third of the students eating a school lunch choose the salad bar rather than the hot meal, producing more than $22,000 in annual sales for local farmers.
Other farm-to-school pilot projects are underway in Connecticut, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida.
The new USDA grant will enable the consortium to launch or expand farm-to-school programs in at least 16 school districts in California, New York, and New Jersey. Among the first will be the launch of new programs in the California communities of Davis and Ventura and the expansion of an existing program in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest.
Researchers at Occidental, Cornell, Rutgers and the UC Davis-based Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program will assess the effectiveness of each program, analyzing such factors as small farm profitability, the economic viability of such programs for school food services, and student participation levels.
Outreach, training and technical assistance for school districts, farm groups, and community organizations – including workshops around the country, a best-practices manual and a training program for food services personnel -- will be provided by Occidental, Penn State, the Community Food Security Coalition and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, together with the other partners.
The project is one of 86 projects nationwide funded by the USDA’s Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems. More than 1,000 proposals were submitted for a total of $113 million in funding.