Family Farms and Farm to School: Return to the Roots

Farm to School programs appeared in the mid-1990s with a 3-way focus: fresh, local foods in school menus; agriculture and nutrition education in classrooms; and purchases that support local family farms. Years since have seen these programs grow to include 40,000 schools and 23 million schoolchildren. Federal grant programs now encourage more.

However, the focus has slipped from ‘local family farms’ to ‘local food.’ Schools and program administrators alike don’t know the difference between a local factory farm or one run by a family that derives its income from the management and daily labor on a farm it owns. It’s far easier for schools and administrators to define ‘local’ than it is to define ‘family farm.’

Family farmers, schools, and rural communities are losing out.

  • Family farmers lose out on income from sales to stable, local markets when schools don’t make the distinction between food grown by a farm family and food grown by workers employed by a corporation.
  • Schools lose out when they don’t choose a farmer who can host a farm tour or come to the classroom to explain how the crops are grown.
  • Families lose when they don’t join in the lessons with encouragement to purchase those featured foods at the farmers market.
  • Communities lose when food dollars go to a corporation headquartered somewhere else instead of to a local family business that buys most of its supplies right there, where the money can circulate. (In fact, family farms generate among the highest economic multipliers of all industries, which should make them the darling of economic development directors.)

Part of this situation is due to hazy goals of Farm to School programs. Those goals should include a definition of the preferred local food supplier alongside goals of local food purchases and nutrition skills gained by students. Are schools allowed to make that kind of choice? Just as they can give a preference to local food purchases (the ‘geographic preference’ granted in the 2002 Farm Bill), they can ask for food bids that include availability for farm tours and classroom visits by the business owner.

Schools want the advantages of fresh, local foods: better taste, reduced spoilage and waste, food from a known source, flexibility in accessing bumper crops or “seconds” for canning or special events, or negotiating for special varieties grown for taste and nutrition, not shipping. They can also create economic and civic benefits by supporting family farmers who buy from local businesses, send their children to local schools, and participate in community government and organizations.