Guest Article: Farm to School: Improving Student and Community hEALTH

Guest Article: Farm to School: Improving Student and Community hEALTH

In a year when school food service departments are facing formidable challenges including emergency meals, nonexistent a la carte sales, and school closures, adding a Farm to School initiative may be the last thing on your mind. But with the supply chain breakdowns and health inequities that have come to the forefront over the past year, Farm to School is more relevant than ever. Not only are there concrete benefits for student and community health, but there are also financial incentives that make Farm to School efforts attractive, especially in such a tight budget year.

Districts with Farm to School programs see an average increase of 9% in meal participation, with additional measurable benefits in academic achievement, fruit and vegetable consumption, and student morale. Supporting local farmers also improves the economic viability of your community, increasing jobs and generating an average of $2 in economic activity for every $1 spent on local food. Farm to School is one of the most valuable investments a district can make to improve quality of life for students and families inside of school and out.

Your district may already be conducting activities that fall under the “Farm to School” umbrella, and if not, there are endless resources to make adopting these practices easy and painless.

Based on our own experience on the East End and conversations with state and national partners, we’ve crafted a guide to get you started:

What is your role?

Identify what small and achievable actions you can accomplish within your current role.

As a Food Service Director or Food Service Worker,

  • Are you familiar with what local products are available from your existing distributors?
  • Do you order through the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Program, and if so, have you noticed items that are labelled as “local?”
  • Are you familiar with the small purchase thresholds of your town and state? Have you ever done a geographic preference bid?
  • Are your team members comfortable processing fresh produce and, if not, are there pre-processed products you can source from within your state or region?

If you are a teacher,

  • What areas of your subject overlap with food studies?

Connections to food systems and farms are relevant in almost any field. New York’s Agriculture in the Classrooms has a wealth of virtual resources with connections to various subject areas.

As a student, staff, parent, or community member,

  • Identify who within your district could be interested in Farm to School.
  • Is there a wellness committee? For most districts, they are the central starting point for health and nutrition efforts.
  • Is there a school garden? If so, could the garden become more integrated into the school curriculum or accessible to the community?
  • Who are your allies?

If you are the lone champion within your district, it is important to identify internal and external allies who can support your efforts. Talk with colleagues, students, and administrators. Once you have identified a few goals, reach out to individuals or organizations doing similar work. Usually, they are happy to share resources.

New York State Department of Education has an interactive map that lists all known Farm to School programs statewide. You may be surprised to find that some of your neighboring districts are Farm to School focused.

If you plan to start a school garden, Slow Food East End and Cornell Cooperative Extension both employ Master Gardeners who can consult and provide a wealth of resources for getting started.

If you are ready to incorporate more local food on your menu, Jerry Shulman Produce works directly with school districts on Long Island, sending out a monthly wholesale list and delivering local produce directly to the Office of General Services Warehouse in Brentwood. At East End Food Institute, we work closely with schools on the East End to deliver minimally processed local produce items.

What are the incentives?

While Farm to School has many inherent benefits, there are also financial incentives to increase local purchases. Districts can apply for a Farm to School grant from both the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets and the USDA. Both grants can give you the funding needed to hire a Farm to School Coordinator, set up a school garden, pilot locally sourced recipes, and get your program set up for success. Once your Farm to School program is established, you could also consider applying for Farm to Institution NYS’ training program, which provides a small implementation grant to bolster existing Farm to School efforts.

New York State also has an initiative to reimburse schools who purchase 30% or more of their ingredients from within the State at 25 cents per meal (yes, you read that right!). So long as schools can document that 30% of their lunch purchases went to NYS growers, they qualify for the higher reimbursement.

Unfortunately, the 30% reimbursement initiative is more difficult for Long Island schools to achieve since the Long Island School Food Co-op does not receive NYS milk. Since milk is such a large portion of school food purchases, this puts upstate schools who can purchase local dairy at an advantage. However, this reimbursement initiative is now funded for the third year in a row, which demonstrates the Governor’s commitment to making Farm to School financially viable. With all of the schools on Long Island banding together to advocate, we’re confident that there can be an opportunity for a successful NYS dairy bid, or a change in the state policy that makes it easier for Long Island schools to succeed.


Heather C. Meehan

Farm to School Coordinator

East End Food Institute

The East End Farm to School Project is a collaborative project focused on three neighboring school districts on the South Fork of Long Island — Bridgehampton School District, Southampton Union Free School District, and Tuckahoe Common School District. We received two grants from the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, in 2016 and 2020. East End Food Institute, a non-profit and burgeoning food hub, joined the project in 2020 under this second grant to support the schools’ procurement efforts and Heather Meehan serves as the Farm to School Coordinator under the same grant. You can reach us at farmtoschool@eastendfood.org to connect and learn more.


This article was also featured in our newsletter Lesson Plan Vol. 24

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