BOULDER, Colo. — “Are potatoes a vegetable?”
A fifth grade boy scanned his cafeteria at Foothill Elementary School, hoping a grown-up could provide the answer.
It was an easy one for Laura Smith, who coordinates Boulder Valley School District’s farm-to-school programming.
The answer: Yes, the boy’s fries technically came from vegetables, but a good plate — one that would earn the Rainbow Day sticker — would have at least three more colors.
Rainbow Days are a feature of Boulder Valley’s 52 area schools. Each elementary has at least one per semester.
On this Rainbow Day, the main course — a local burger, a non-local vegetarian alternative and fries — is accompanied by a salad bar of regional produce. It’s just one example of the district’s initiative to connect students with local food systems; the initiative also includes farm field trips, school gardens, mini-markets and farmer visits.
The salad bar’s watermelon radishes came from Isabelle Farms, 12 miles down the road. A few days after Foothill’s Rainbow Day, Isabelle co-owner Natalie Condon hosted 75 first graders from nearby Douglass Elementary.
During the farm tour, some students spent more time searching for bugs in the dirt than listening to Condon’s plant descriptions, and, not all of Foothill’s kids tried the watermelon radishes. But the hope is that the idea of their food having an origin story will somehow stick with the students. It’s messy, but that’s the nature of a program like farm to school.
$5 MILLION FOR A DREAM
In 2007, Anupama Joshi founded the National Farm to School Network to provide data and advice to groups interested in starting programs and to collectively lobby for state- and federal-grant legislation.
With time, these programs, once randomly distributed initiatives to get healthy food into schools, became more formalized as the U.S. Department of Agriculture got involved.
The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — that year’s version of the Child Nutrition Act — set aside $5 million to launch the USDA’s farm-to-school grant program with three major goals: encouraging nutrition education, starting school gardens and helping schools exchange their processed foods for more-local products.
The bill was scheduled for reauthorization in 2015, but Congress has avoided action. Therefore, the program continues with $5 million for grant distribution each year. But these days, far more schools want farm-to-school grants than can have them. In fact, more than five schools apply for every one available grant, according to the USDA. Experts on farm to school agreed that when — or if — the legislation is renewed, the funding for the program likely will not be cut.
“Really, the question is, ‘Is the funding going to get increased?'” said Deborah Kane, the USDA’s director of community food systems, which houses USDA farm-to-school work. “There have been no indications to date that too many people are interested in cutting funding.”
“That’s sort of the beauty of farm to school,” Joshi said. “Kids win, farmers win, communities win. It’s a triple win if you look at the outcomes.”
Each version of the bill calls for increasing the USDA’s grant base from $5 million to $15 million and aims to include summer school, after-school programs and preschools. Both bills have been sitting in committee since early 2015.
The problem is that farm to school is also wrapped up in possible versions of the next Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, and the separate farm-to-school bills are unlikely to be passed separate from the package, according to a staffer for Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, an original co-sponsor of the House bill.
The staffer noted that there are benefits to omnibus legislation such as the Child Nutrition Act, but that the House’s Child Nutrition Act reauthorization bill is a “nonstarter” for most Democrats because it also includes a provision that would change the threshold for community eligibility. The current threshold is 40 percent, meaning that if 40 percent of a school district’s population qualifies for free and reduced lunch, “identified students” within the district can also be eligible without an application, a commonly used tool for schools in high poverty, food insecure areas. The bill would move this threshold to 60 percent.
The staffer added that President Barack Obama is unlikely to push this issue during the lame-duck session, leaving it up to the next administration.
“LOCAL” AND OTHER COMPLICATED REALITIES
The USDA’s 2015 farm-to-school census reported programs operating in all 50 states. In 2016, 74 projects in 39 states split the $5 million in grants from the USDA.
While every state has at least one program, statewide school district implementation rates range from 21 percent in Oklahoma to 90 percent in Rhode Island. With the exception of Minnesota, most Midwestern statewide participate rates are between 20 percent and 40 percent. Compare that to the coasts: California hit 55 percent, and most of the East Coast states were at 60 percent to 70 percent. Kane said the higher rates are the result of some states having started the programs long before the 2010 act.
The USDA, both by Congress’ instruction and its own standards, aims to spread grants out across the nation so that schools are only competing within their respective regions, explained Kane. Congress also mandated that programs affecting Native American youth should be prioritized. In recent years, she said, the USDA has focused more attention on programs aiming to feed kids in the summer.
The USDA does not have criteria for what qualifies as “local food” — those choices are made, well, locally. According to the USDA’s farm-to-school census, 26 percent of participating schools define local as “within the state,” and 17 percent of schools choose instead to call local “within a 50-mile radius.” Others use the more vague “in the region.” Kane said the USDA has never found schools buying non-local food with grant money, intentionally or accidentally.
The Boulder school district sits down with local farmers in January to plan for the following school year. Condon, the co-owner of Isabelle Farms, said that one of the biggest factors is that the region’s growing season does not align well with the academic year.
“A lot of times we will sell them winter squash in November and December, but this year we decided to primarily sell all our winter squashes as early as we could so that we weren’t really dealing with storing it and spoilage,” Condon said.
Joshi said that while states along the coasts have blazed the trail when it comes to getting regional foods into various local institutions, comparing their successes is unfair because of the various infrastructure, political and technological challenges.
Another challenge is simply what the school is able to offer. If a kitchen is only equipped with an oven for reheating prepackaged food, it doesn’t have the capacity of an institution with a full staff of chefs.
“Food needs to be washed, chopped, cleaned, cooked,” Joshi pointed out, explaining why a 180-change from processed to local food is difficult for some schools.
Farmers also face challenges, Joshi said.
Condon’s farm is based on direct-market sales, meaning that in terms of post-harvest food safety and standards, they were already prepared to sell to schools when the program started up. For her, the challenge comes more with the costs of selling to budget-strapped schools. But that’s a business decision that Condon understands.
“It’s really great that they actually are trying to make that connection for the kids, and I think it’s really important,” she said. “Quite frankly, I’m super psyched to be a part of it.”
But not all farmers possess the equipment required to sell to schools that are only prepared to deal with produce that is pre-washed and packaged.
The simple solution would be for schools to acquire the right equipment, but they are already working with limited funds. The federal reimbursement rate for a full meal is just under $3. After labor and related costs, schools have about $1 to provide a healthy lunch, Joshi said.
Nobody understands that issue quite like Harmonee Williams.
Williams is the food security project manager for Sustainable Molokai, a non-profit based on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. The organization runs a food hub and a farm-to-school program, which operates in the island’s K-12 schools.
Sustainable Molokai applied for a USDA farm-to-school grant twice without success. But its other USDA grants have supported the nonprofit’s food security initiatives, which encompass its farm-to-school work.
It tries to incorporate traditional Hawaiian foods such as taro and breadfruit, but that’s difficult when most of the island’s food is from the continental United States, Williams said.
“If you look at a typical farmer in Hawaii, they just have way higher input costs,” Williams said. “So when you go to compare something simple like lettuce, the schools can buy it even cheaper from California than they can from farmers on Molokai.”
These problems are not specific to Molokai. They also reach to the north — very, very north. The Sitka Conservation Society of Southeastern Alaska also struggles with the balance of offering regional meals within its budget.
Sophie Nethercut, who runs the group’s programming with the local schools, said that the state used to offer funding for districts to buy local food in a place that also imports a hefty amount of what it consumes.
The Sitka fish-to-school program is a prime example of the increased preparation local foods require, as the schools must cook the fish from scratch. Nethercut said that well-equipped schools prep extra fish and deliver it to the other schools. Prior to the program, she added, most of the fish served in Sitka’s schools was imported from other parts of the world to the region, home to some of the world’s best fisheries.
However, Nethercut said, budget cuts are forcing Sitka to rely more on fundraisers and donations from local fishermen and canneries to get fresh fish into Sitka schools at least once a week.
Boulder, a community with a large farm-to-school initiative, is having funding problems, too. Smith, the program coordinator, said that the district needs about $200,000 to implement its programs annually.
“When I’m not in schools, I’m looking for money,” Smith said. “Every single year we add more in-school events, more tastings, more Rainbow Days and so forth.”