Serving farm fresh food in schools is getting big federal support — but will 'farm to school' stick?
It’s a hot, buggy morning and Derrick Hoffman is poking around a densely packed row of bushy cherry tomato plants.
Behind him, rows of peppers, eggplant, kale and broccoli are still soaking up the sun, while just a few country roads away, bok choy and butter lettuce sprout under hoop house protection.
But in the cherry tomato patch, it’s already harvest season. Hoffman and a handful of farm hands are choosing tomatoes to pick – the ones already deepened to the just right shade of red. “Or light orange,” Hoffman concedes. “Because once you put a red one with an orange one, they all turn red.”
Hoffman doesn’t want them all to turn red too quickly, because once these tomatoes leave his 100-acre farm on the outskirts of Greeley, Colorado, they have to fit with the lunch service schedule at a local public school.
“These will go to Greeley Evans School District here just down the road,” he explains. “We’re five miles from their warehouse.”
In about a week, kids will be snacking on them in nearby school cafeterias.
Hoffman’s tomatoes are part of a growing farm-to-school movement that is revolutionizing the humble school lunch. When Farm to School programming works as designed, kids fill their plates with fresh, nutritious food, and local farm economies get a major boost, creating a more resilient regional food supply chain.
It’s a seemingly simple idea that has lots of benefits. Sunny Baker, senior director of programs and policy at the National Farm to School Network said the issue is truly bipartisan.
“Farm to school is really easy,” she said. “We call it a triple win. It's a win for kids. It's a win for farmers, it's a win for school and the community.”
But while Hoffman and the schools he works with represent the best outcome of Farm to School programs, they are hardly typical. Getting all that local food into schools has proven frustratingly complicated. And while up-to-date data on the reach of Farm to School activity is lacking, it’s clear that there’s still lots of untapped potential for growth when it comes to getting farm fresh foods into school cafeterias.
‘Fire hose’ of funding
Tapping that potential has recently gained new urgency at the federal level.
Since 2013, the USDA has funneled about $84 million to states for funding general farm to school programming. Then last school year, the department dramatically increased its spending for Farm to School programs. At least $200 million directly funds local food purchases and an additional $60 million is earmarked to fund related farm to school infrastructure, coordination and technical assistance.
Both pools of money give states lots of flexibility to decide how to deploy the funds in a way that works well for local conditions. And even more money supports local food programming in schools indirectly.
“We have been describing it as trying to drink out of a firehose because there's just so much money coming down from the USDA right now,” said Baker of the National Farm to School Network.
She described that investment as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give school lunch a head-to-toe makeover by integrating it into local food systems.
“One of the best things that can come out of this massive influx of money is going to be that we're developing really incredible examples of how this can work,” she said. “We’re learning what's possible.”
In Iowa, for instance, those investments stood up a network of regional food hubs that do the hard work of making connections with local growers, sourcing produce and streamlining the food purchasing process to make local food easier for schools.
The funds also trickled down to local school districts, in the form of $8,000 in grants to buy farm-fresh food through those food hubs.
“That was huge,” said Julie Udelhofen, food services director for the Clear Lake School District in norther Iowa. “I jumped right on that.”
Last year, the first year those funds were available, Udelhofen maxed out the grants and then some, buying an array of fresh produce for her students.
“Watermelon, apples, pears, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes,” she said, describing the bounty. “You name it. If it can be grown around here, we're exposing the kids to those products.” Iowa is looking to double the funding available for locally produced food this school year.
Udelhofen is looking forward to spending every cent available to her. “As I saw that product come in and the freshness, the color, the flavor, it just made it all worth it.”
But she said it hasn’t always been that easy.
Before the recent boost from federal funds, Farm to School activity was growing steadily, but slowly.
Cindy Long, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Nutrition Service, which runs the permanent Farm to School program, said she’s seen the many roadblocks slowing things down firsthand.
“We often hear that schools and producers initially don't talk the same language,” Long said. “Schools think about ‘Oh, I need 7,500 servings of this.’ And farmers think in terms of bushels or crates.”
Udelhofen’s first encounter with farm to school programming happened years ago, when she worked in food services at a private school in Iowa. The benefits were immediately obvious, and she was hooked.
“I'm pretty passionate about local food and getting these kids exposed to healthy eating,” Udelhofen said.
But when she moved into the role of food services director for the public schools in Clear Lake — a school district of about 1,400 kids — she had no choice but to revert to business as usual, ordering food from mainline institutional food distribution companies.
“The big box companies can do it with the economies of scale and it's less expensive. So how do I justify spending more money?” Udelhofen said. “I have a budget I have to stay within.”
Long said there are other big challenges her agency has had to tackle, citing “a lack of [cafeteria] staff capacity to engage in activities and then having to work within a fairly structured procurement system in terms of buying food for their school.”
‘More producers into the arena’
The structured procurement system, which involves a bureaucratic bidding system, can also be off-putting for farmers, contributing to a shortage on the supply side of locally produced food.
Danielle Bock, director of Nutrition Services for the Greeley-Evans School District in northern Colorado, said she would gladly spend even more of her budget on local foods if more was available.
“For the producers who are interested in keeping their products local and selling to an institution like a school district, we've kind of tapped all that,” she said. “We need to bring more producers into the arena.”
Derrick Hoffman agrees.
“For the small guys, it's an intimidating process,” he said.
Hoffman is currently the only farmer providing local food to Bock’s school district, but he wants to encourage more of his peers to get into the school lunch business. “It seems counterintuitive that you want competition,” he mused. “But you want a healthy system, because you don't want to be the only ones doing it.”
Tapping into the farm to school market has been transformative for Hoffman, and his experience demonstrates how involving more farmers has the potential to make a big impact on the local farm economy.
When Hoffman and his wife started their farm in 2015, he kept his office job to make ends meet. He says he stumbled on the farm to school business by accident. But within a few years, that side of the business was so good he was able to quit his day job and focus on farming.
“We were lucky enough to find that schools can take a large volume,” Hoffman said. “It's allowed us to grow. It's allowed us to do what we're doing.”
Today, he sells directly to eight local school districts along Colorado’s Front Range and his produce makes its way into even more school cafeterias through indirect contracts. He says all that farm to school business now makes up 60%-75% of his business.
Some of the new federal money coming down is designed to help other farmers find their own paths to farm to school success. It funds training and technical assistance for producers in order to help get them in the game.
But there’s a catch with this wealth of federal support: the firehose of extra funding runs out at the end of this school year, which means all of these new systems being stood up now need to be self-sustaining when the well runs dry.
For her part, Udelhofen isn’t sure whether her local food service can outlive the temporary funding, but she’ll keep it going as long as she’s able.
“As long as my budget looks good and I can support it,” she said, “I'm going to get that food in front of the kids.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.