WASHINGTON, March 17 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Despite the usual abundance of nearby farms, local farm products are largely missing from most schools' lunch trays. An emerging "farm to school" movement aims to fix that by matching local farms with local schools, cutting out the middleman, and scaling up students' nutrition.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has been joined by Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and 12 other senators in introducing legislation to expand farm to school links to boost the use of local farm products in the federally supported school lunch program. Leahy introduced the bill on Tuesday.
Their "Growing Farm To School Programs Act" would provide $50 million in startup funds to local schools and districts, through competitive grants, for technical help in connecting school food service providers with local small- and medium-sized farms for efficient and cost-effective purchases of locally produced foods for school lunchrooms.
Leahy said, "Connecting farms and schools makes sense in so many ways, from economics to nutrition. The school lunch program is a sizable buyer in every community. There is no need to start from scratch. We have pent up demand for fresh local food, and ample local supplies. It's a natural fit for an untapped market. What we need are the links and logistics to get the ball rolling. This bill is a catalyst to forge these connections and let them flourish."
Specter said, "The legislation I join Senator Leahy in introducing today is an important bill both for rural development and child nutrition. Not only will it facilitate healthy eating in our school cafeterias, it will promote local food and revitalize our rural economies."
Leahy, the most senior member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, And Forestry of either party, introduced the bill with 13 cosponsors, including Specter and Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Robert Casey (D-Pa.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).
The new legislation builds on an effort Leahy and Specter began in 2004 by encouraging farm to school initiatives through provisions they added to that year's Child Nutrition Reauthorization. The idea has caught on so successfully since then that there is a long backlog of schools wanting to try it. Many face barriers with startup funding, planning, implementation, equipment and technical capacity. More than 130 Vermont schools are experimenting with farm to school programs, and many more are interested. Leahy last year brought U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to visit the Lawrence Barnes Elementary School in Burlington, Vt., where Duncan learned about the school's partnership with local farmers to provide healthy, locally grown foods and listened to teachers, parents, and students talk about challenges they face.
Leahy said struggling small- and mid-sized farms, ranchers and fishermen would benefit from these reliable and sustainable new markets. Local farmers can offer fresh choices, needing less processing, while offering students the chance to learn how and where their food is grown. Cutting out middlemen and selling directly to nearby schools lets farmers keep more of each dollar, which rebounds through the local economy. While most farmers earn just 20 cents of every food dollar Americans spend, farm to school farmers might earn as much as 60 to 70 cents on each dollar of sales.
In turn, thriving local farms create jobs, maintain agricultural infrastructure, pay taxes and keep working land open. A study in Oregon last year found that every dollar invested in farm to school projects triggered $1.87 in local economic activity. With so many children having never visited a farm and having no concept of where their food comes from, the farm to school programs help connect students directly with farms and the chain through which crops become items at the cafeteria counter.
The farm to school movement also fits neatly into emerging strategies to counter childhood obesity such as First Lady Michelle Obama's 'Let's Move' campaign. Today more than 30 percent of American children are obese, and the risks to children's health are also risks to the economy, with the billions of dollars spent each year treating obesity-related conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The Centers for Disease Control have identified increased fresh fruit and vegetable consumption as one of six top strategies to control and prevent obesity.
Leahy expects the new bill to be incorporated into a major child nutrition reauthorization bill that is nearing action by the Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).
SOURCE Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy