by Gail March Yerke

Most of us are familiar with the terms farm-to-table, farm-to-restaurant and farm-to-fork. But what exactly is farm-to-school? It’s much more than the traditional field trip to a nearby farm or orchard to teach children about agriculture.

The USDA Farm to School program is found in all 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. First introduced in the 1990s, the program promotes school gardens and curriculum that connects students with nutrition and the sources of their food. It collaborates with the National School Lunch, National School Breakfast and Summer Food Service programs, helping ensure that children have access to nutritious meals and snacks throughout the year.

But just as grocery stores have experienced procurement issues, school food authorities (SFAs) have also struggled to maintain consistent food sourcing during the past two years. An SFA, under federal child nutrition laws, is the entity responsible for the operations and administration of local school nutrition programs. From last-minute substitutions or shortages to outright cancellations, SFAs across the country are scrambling to keep their daily nutrition programs on track.

The Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) recently hosted the webinar “Bridging the Gap: Connecting Farm to School.” Presenters from both DATCP and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) identified opportunities for small farms and local food businesses in working with schools. Your farm operation can get involved, providing fresh produce while creating an additional income stream for your business.

Supply Chain Issues Impact School Meal Programs

“The past year unveiled weaknesses along the supply chain and reminded us all of the value of strong local food systems,” said WFU Membership Engagement Director Kirsten Slaughter. “We’re glad to be able to bridge the gap and bring farmers together with school foodservice personnel to learn how we can get more nutritious, local food into school districts here in Wisconsin.” As part of the initiative, the state’s DPI hosts an interactive website where producers and SFAs connect. To date, they have seen more than 65 farms sign on to participate. These agribusinesses are helping their communities and adding to their bottom lines at the same time.

“Many schools are turning to our local food system partners because of their reliability and resilience,” said DATCP Farm to School and Institution Program Specialist April Yancer. “When school started last September, we quickly realized that there was going to be some pretty serious supply chain disruptions in schools. They were really having a hard time hitting the ground running because of a variety of problems, from labor issues in production and distribution of food and materials to labor issues within the school kitchen. Our goal is to support these systems and collaborations between Wisconsin schools and producers in developing farm-to-school supply chains to provide nutrition through school meal programs.”

With the help of a Specialty Crop Block Grant and a Kenosha-based processing plant, the state agency has initiated the Wisconsin Farm-to-School Minimally Processed Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Project. “We are partnering with Midwest Foods to source fruits and vegetables from more Wisconsin producers. Those fruits and vegetables are sent through their processing plant in Kenosha and provide minimally processed products to Wisconsin schools,” she said. When a survey was sent to SFAs across the state, some of the most needed items for their meal programs included whole grain products, grab-and-go items and pre-packaged and pre-proportioned food. Canned and fresh fruits and vegetables were also in short supply.

Many farm-to-school participants are relatively new to the program, with over half having joined within the past three years. Photo courtesy of Chef Irene Pawlisch, Columbus School District, WI

Farm-to-School Advisory Council

An advisory council appointed by the Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture also contributes to the program’s success. The 15-member board includes agriculture and local supply chain leaders, educators, school foodservice authorities, child health and nutrition professionals and community leaders. One member that has served on the council for the past three years is Michael Gasper, director of nutrition services for the School District of Holmen.

“The advisory council basically deals with supporting farm-to-school programs throughout the state and we also try to help influence legislation. The economic impact that it has for both the local communities and the state are tremendous,” he said. Gasper indicated that one of the council’s goals was to see farm-to-school supported by every school district in the state, including assisting urban school districts. “These urban districts often do not have the resources to easily go out and find farms and this program helps put the infrastructure in place to make that easier,” he added.

How One School District Participates

Located in western Wisconsin, the Holmen School District includes seven public schools with over 4,000 students. Having served the district the past 14 years, Gasper explained how Holmen participates in Wisconsin’s farm-to-school program. In addition to a strong agriculture curriculum, their nutrition program does a lot of local purchasing for school lunches. The district purchases milk and yogurt from nearby dairies and apples from a local orchard. “There are just so many different ways to do this,” he said. “Schools can work with their distributors to find ways to purchase from local farmers as well.”

The USDA Farm to School Census reaches out to all public and private SFAs that participate in the National School Lunch Program. It shows that many participants are relatively new to farm-to-school, with over half having joined within the past three years. The recent census also reported that local food procurement accounts for an estimated 20% of all SFA food purchases. To learn how your agribusiness might participate, contact your state’s farm-to-school program administrator.