Happy National Farm to School Month! Every October, the USDA Farm to School team is overwhelmed with stories of how farm to school programs are affecting kids, producers, and communities. Having now made 221 grants to school districts and other entities across the country to pursue projects that bring more local foods into schools and teach kids about where their foods comes from, we experience a steady stream of encouraging stories throughout the year. Stories about local farmers proudly supplying grains for a district’s whole grain baked goods; stories about school food service staff dressing up like fruits and vegetables to encourage healthy eating; stories about kids growing beets in the school garden and then devouring them when they show up in the cafeteria. During Farm to School Month, these anecdotes proliferate--on social media, on blogs, and via news stories. They inspire us, amuse us, and sometimes even make us tear up, but they don’t unequivocally prove that these programs work. For that, we rely on studies and surveys, on journal articles and evaluation results.
While farm to school is a relatively nascent area of research, a few recent studies have caught our attention.
Last year, researchers in Wisconsin published an article in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior assessing the effectiveness of farm to school programs in their state in increasing students’ fruit and vegetable intake. They found that students grades three through five participating in farm to school activities had better attitudes towards and greater willingness to try fruits and vegetables. These students also demonstrated greater knowledge related to nutrition and agriculture.
A 2015 research review in the Journal of School Health looked at sixteen studies that assessed the effect of school gardens on academic and dietary outcomes in students. Of the twelve studies measuring dietary outcomes, all of them showed students eating or likely to eat more fruits and vegetables. Additionally, three of the four studies measuring academic outcomes also showed student improvements.
In the area of farm to preschool, a new focus for USDA, an article published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explored if children ages three to five exposed to Harvest for Healthy Kids, a nutrition education curriculum, have a greater willingness to try and like certain foods. They discovered that compared to those that were not, children participating in the Healthy Kids pilot had a greater willingness to try target foods such as carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, cabbage, turnips, rutabaga, berries, beets, and asparagus.
In 2013, the results from our own research project, the USDA Farm to School Census, showed that school districts were an emerging market for local foods with more than $385 million being spent by schools on local foods during the 2011-2012 school year. Later this month, we are excited to be releasing preliminary results from a second Census, looking at school year 2013-2014. You’ll have to wait a couple weeks for more, but we can tell you now that many districts with farm to school programs are enjoying benefits such as reductions in plate waste, increases in school meal participation rates, and an increased willingness on the part of children to try new foods, notably fruits and vegetables.
We look forward to keeping our eyes on, and contributing to, the growing body of farm to school research. But keep those stories coming, because facts and figures are never quite as heartwarming as the idea of a bright young face aglow with the recognition that nothing beats the flavor, the texture, and the warm feeling you get from eating local food from a farmer you know.