By Dr. Lyn Kathlene
In an era of rising youth obesity rates, chronic health problems related to diet, and the growing evidence that proper nutrition is essential to academic success, school meals are more important than ever.
Students who attend schools regularly supplied with local produce have nearly doubled their consumption of fruits and vegetables offered in salad bars. Local school and farm partnerships have also resulted in gardens on school grounds. This hands-on connection proves especially successful in getting kids to try new and different fruits and veggies; if they grow it, they will eat it! In fact, students have a 14 percent lower chance of being overweight or obese when they have the option of fresh produce at school.
There is also a clear economic impact: farmers who participate in Farm to School programs have seen an average increase in their income of five percent, which has a ripple effect on the state’s economy. Every dollar invested in these programs generates $2.15 of local economic activity.
Yet with 1,500 fruit and vegetable producers in Colorado, and many school food service directors who are engaged and willing to buy locally, schools can’t find enough local farmers able to sell to them.
Spark Policy Institute, working with the Colorado Farm to School Task Force, found that the two biggest hurdles to making Farm to School work are food safety and competitive pricing.
While many small- to mid-sized producers sell directly to consumers, such as at farmers’ markets, selling to schools requires they have formal farm food safety plans. This poses a big jump in costs and time. A recent study found that the average cost of implementing farm safety programs for farms smaller than 100 acres was up to four times more than for farms of at least 100 acres.
Similarly, it is difficult for smaller, local producers to compete on price against national distributors who source their food in large quantities from around the world. Moreover, schools rely on several federal subsidized food programs, which sell food substantially below market value.
To figure out how to address these barriers, Spark and the Task Force took a comprehensive approach. Research on existing federal and state food safety laws and regulations as they relate to schools, coupled with listening sessions in local communities and interviews with producers and school food service directors, identified challenges, clarified misunderstandings, and determined what’s needed to help schools and producers work together.
The outcome of this work is House Bill 15-1088, the Farm to School Grant Program. This program will make it possible for local farmers to sell their produce directly to schools by addressing the issue of complying with school food safety regulations.
The bill will also make it possible for growers to put local schools at the top of their “sell to” list. Grant funds can be used to help farmers meet costs that place local producers at a competitive disadvantage to school food vendors who source their products from outside Colorado or are otherwise subsidized. And once producers start selling to a school in a way that is profitable, they stay committed to that relationship because, after all, it’s their kids in the schools and their community.
Based on a solid understanding of both data and local realities, this investment of less than 0.01 percent of the state’s general revenue budget is well positioned to make a big impact. With the passage of this bill, Colorado can invest in our children, our schools, and our economy. The Farm to School Task Force and Spark have tilled the ground and planted the seeds, now we need Colorado legislators to grow and harvest the crop of methods that will make it possible for many more local producers to partner with schools.
Dr. Lyn Kathlene is a Director at Spark Policy Institute and serves as lead staff of the Colorado Farm to School Task Force.
Opinions expressed in Health News Colorado represent the views of the individual authors.