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While Demand for Farm-to-School Program Doubles in Minnesota, Organic Focus is Lost

(Beyond Pesticides, April 13, 2010) While the number of Minnesota school districts purchasing fresh food from local farms has more than doubled in the last 15 months, according to a survey released last week by the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), there is no mention of organically produced food as a priority to protect children, local health or the local environment from the pollution and contamination caused by pesticide use. Communities, such as Olympia, Washington have turned to local organic food in their school lunch program. According to the Rodale Institute, “[W]hile it’s true that food produced locally generally has a smaller carbon footprint than food transported across the country (or from another continent), the carbon emitted by transporting food is smaller than that released by growing it with chemical means. In fact, PepsiCo recently documented that, for its Tropicana orange juice, transporting the product accounted for only 22% of its carbon footprint.”

Rodale suggests local organic food as the gold standard because it eliminates petroleum-based fertilizers and reduces fossil fuel use in the farming operation. Rodale suggests the following priority for food purchasing: 1. Local certified organic food, 2. Local noncertified organic food, 3. Nonlocal certified organic food, 4. Local nonorganic, 5. Everything else.

Farm-to-school programs link school children with local farmers and farm products, including fruits and vegetables, meat, grains and other items. Farm-to-school provides fresh, healthy food choices, helps children develop healthy eating habits and supports small and mid-size farmers. According to the Farm-to-School website, forty four states have 2,111 farm-to-school programs impacting 8,944 schools nationwide.

The survey gathered input from MSNA’s membership, which includes foodservice professionals from nearly 100 public school districts serving approximately 550,000 K-12 students across the state. Sixty-nine districts reported purchasing Minnesota-grown products in 2009, more than double the figure from late 2008. Further, 77 percent of the districts now involved with farm to school initiatives expect to expand their activities in the upcoming school year, a sign that these programs are taking root and growing.

“Parents, students and educators know that good nutrition is essential if our kids are to be healthy and ready to learn. Small and mid-size farmers, whose products have largely been absent from America’s lunch trays, can offer our children fresh, less-processed choices and a chance to learn how and where their food is grown,” said IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp. “The momentum is rapidly building for farm to school programs and it’s great to see schools and farmers embracing this opportunity.”

Other key findings from the survey include:
 The most commonly used local foods were apples, potatoes, peppers, winter squash, sweet corn and tomatoes. A growing number of schools are also purchasing Minnesota-grown bison, wild rice, dried beans and grains.
 Nearly 43 percent of school districts purchasing Minnesota-grown food in 2009 did so by purchasing directly from a farmer or farmer co-op.
 While 84 percent of the survey respondents reported purchasing foods grown in Minnesota, 35 percent also purchased foods grown in neighboring areas of Wisconsin, Iowa and/or North or South Dakota.
 The biggest barriers to expanding farm to school purchases were the need for extra labor and preparation time in the cafeteria, pricing and tight food budgets, and difficulty finding nearby farmers to purchase from directly.
 In the future, schools are most interested in purchasing local vegetables and fruit, with growing interest in bread and grains, dairy and meat. The survey also showed strong interest in expanding student education about Farm-to-School and growing food in school gardens.

A study in the March/April issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior examines how farm-to-school programs have the potential to improve children’s diets by providing locally grown produce without burdening the school’s finances. The researchers found the farm-to-school programs benefited both the school and farmer. SFSP reported that the lower price for produce was attributed to a shortened supply chain. SFSP were able to buy produce that is not typically offered in school cafeterias such as asparagus, blue potatoes, Asian pears, etc. Schools are an attractive market for the farmer because “perfect” products are not always needed.

Congress has begun working on the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, the major federal legislation that determines school food policy and resources. According to the New York Times, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2010 includes about $40 million for farm-to-school programs and school gardens and an additional $10 million toward adding organic food.

Beyond Pesticides advocates for organically grown local food. Organic farming and food systems are holistic, work with nature rather than relying on inputs such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers, exhibit higher standards for the welfare of animals, and do not allow routine use of antibiotics. Organic farming protects the local environment, waterways, air quality, and the farmworkers and their families from chemicals that have been shown to cause a myriad of chronic health effects, such as cancer, endocrine disruption and a series of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. For more information of the many benefits of organic food, please visit Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.

TAKE ACTION: For more information on organic school lunches, school gardens, and getting organic food into your school, see Beyond Pesticides’ fact sheets “School Lunches Go Organic” and “Organizing for Organic School Lunches,” as well as previous Daily News stories “School District Serves Healthier Choices with Organic, Locally Grown Foods.” For more information on pesticides impact on children and what can be done to protect this vulnerable population, see Beyond Pesticides’ Children and Schools program page.


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