October is National Farm to School Month. To celebrate, Massachusetts Farm to School hosted the first Farm to School Awareness Day at the state Capitol on October 26th. Alana Davidson recounts what happened at the event, and details current legislation that is being considered on Farm to School and ways to get involved and support strong Farm to School programs.
Dozens of students, advocates, and government officials flocked to the state Capitol on October 26th for the first Farm to School Awareness Day, as part of National Farm to School Month. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 spurred the creation of Farm to School programs to provide grants and technical assistance to schools so they can provide more locally grown food in school meals. This State House event reflected on the progress Massachusetts has made in expanding Farm to School programs, as well as what more needs to be done.
The speakers at the event ranged from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials to state senators. The USDA’s Farm to School Director, Erin Healy, spoke about the importance of these programs, and how the USDA 2015 Census of Farm to School found that 68% of Massachusetts’ school districts participated in these activities. That is 828 schools and 422,072 students! Rob Leshin, Director of Food and Nutrition Programs at the Massachusetts Department of Education, added that Farm to School programs have led to the investment of over $10 million in local foods. The locally grown food is not just being used in school lunch, but also in school breakfast, summer meals, and afterschool snack programs. Leshin also described how some schools are including local seafood in school meals. During lunchtime students get to eat Tilapia, the “Catch of the Day” that was caught that morning. Students learn about local fishermen and where and how their seafood is caught. The chairs of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, Senator Gobi and Congressman Pignatelli, also spoke. They expressed their support for Farm to School programs and recognized the importance of connecting local farmers with students and school meals. Having the support of the chairs is important because they can influence what bills ought to pass out of committee and what amendments are accepted or rejected. Also, if the House and Senate pass different bills, the chair is in charge of the committee that combines the two bills into one final version.
There is currently one bill in the Massachusetts congress that affects Farm to School programs (An Act Relative to Healthy Eating in School Cafeterias, H.3549). The bill includes a three-year grant program to fund kitchen upgrades for one school each year, with the goal of improving fresh food accommodation and storage. Additionally, a four-year pilot grant program will provide funds to multiple schools to increase their supplies of locally grown foods in school meals, and improve student education and engagement around healthy eating. Finally, the bill establishes a School Interagency Task Force that will aim to increase the sustainability of Farm to School programs in Massachusetts, and provide guidance for the four-year grant. This bill has been introduced in the Joint Committee on Education and has had one hearing thus far on July 18th. Next, the bill is “reported out of committee”, which means committee members must decide if the bill ought to pass or not. They have until the third Wednesday of March 2018 to do this. If they decide it ought to pass the bill can then be debated and amendments added before the full House and Senate vote it on.
Farm to School programs help increase students’ access to healthy, nutritious food in schools. They also stimulate local economies by directing money to local farms and fisheries. These programs can be expanded by providing more funding to schools to increase educational activities, improve kitchen equipment, and strengthen local food systems through greater procurement policies with local farms.
If you are a supporter of these programs, contact your state members of Congress and tell them to support H.3549 and strong Farm to School programs! To find your legislator, visit: https://malegislature.gov/Search/FindMyLegislator. Also, tell your legislators to maintain the current funding for Farm to School programs ($120,000) in the fiscal year 2019 Massachusetts’s Budget!
If you do not live in Massachusetts, or are interested in federal policy (as opposed to state policy) – the Farm to School Act of 2017 is currently in committee in the House and Senate. This bill increases mandatory funding for the program from $5 million to $15 million due to increased demand. Tell your federal members of Congress to support this bill and strong Farm to School programs! To find your members, call the U.S. Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121.
Alana Davidson is a first year MS candidate in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program. For the last three years she has interned in the anti-hunger field at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Share Our Strength, and End Hunger Connecticut!. Her research and advocacy have centered on domestic food insecurity and nutrition issues.