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National Farm to School Month Highlights Benefits to America's Students and Communities

It’s National Farm to School Month and USDA’s Office of Community Food Systems is here to help…and not just in October!  All year long, we offer research, grants, training and technical assistance to help connect child nutrition programs with local foods.  Here’s why.

Farm to school helps form healthy habits. By incorporating local foods, farm to school programs help school meal programs fulfill the updated nutrition standards with appealing and diverse offerings.  And the results are impressive.  The recent 2015 USDA Farm to School Census shows farm to school programs now exist in every state in the nation and in every type of school district – large and small, rural and urban alike. With that in mind, we plan to build on this momentum!

Mid-Atlantic Health Care Partner Network; Finding New Ways to Revitalize the Health and Wellness of Our Communities

March is National Nutrition Month. Throughout the month, USDA will be highlighting results of our efforts to improve access to safe, healthy food for all Americans and supporting the health of our next generation.

Make no mistake: Hunger is a health issue. There are clear associations between food insecurity and poor health outcomes, and health providers across the country know that good health doesn’t depend solely on medical care. And this is where USDA comes in.

I frequently interact with community health organizations in the Mid-Atlantic region. Through conversations and the observations of physicians, community clinics and hospitals, we understand that USDA’s nutrition assistance programs are a natural partner to patient care.  And so, in my region we created a platform for sharing ideas on how to target our nutrition programs at the places and with the people who directly provide health services in our communities.

Big Schools Make Big Changes in School Meal Delivery

March is National Nutrition Month. Throughout the month, USDA will be highlighting results of our efforts to improve access to safe, healthy food for all Americans and supporting the health of our next generation.

For more than 250,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), gone are the days of scrounging for lunch money, bumming a snack from a friend, or going into seventh period with a growling stomach. As of March 1,339 sites in the district now offer breakfast and lunch at no cost to students via the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).  The second largest school district in the nation, LAUSD serves a high-poverty population: More than one in five residents live below the poverty line, and the area has the largest food insecure population in the country.  By expanding CEP in their district, LAUSD is guaranteeing students access to the nutrition they need to thrive in the classroom and beyond.

You may have heard us talk about CEP before.  Most recently, we explored how schools around the country are remaining flexible - dealing with any barriers they may face - to implement CEP and benefit from what administrators are calling a “financial win/win.”  We’re excited to report that several large districts across the country – and the hundreds of thousands of students enrolled at those schools – are now experiencing those poverty-fighting, nutrition-promoting benefits.  LAUSD joins Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Shelby County (Tenn.) and Houston school districts, who have all implemented CEP, offering two nutritious meals a day at no cost to more than 100,000 students each.

Cooking Up a Healthy, Delicious School Breakfast: Idaho's Chef Designed School Breakfast

For 50 years, the School Breakfast Program has provided children of all economic backgrounds a well-balanced meal consistent with the latest nutrition science to set them up for a healthy day of growing and learning.  And once again, USDA is celebrating School Breakfast Week (March 7-11) to raise awareness about the many ways the program benefits school kids nationwide.  The blog below highlights a (Fiscal Year 2013) Team Nutrition Training Grantee’s launch of their Chef Designed School Breakfast initiative, reminding us all that good nutrition is critical to a child’s overall success!

By Jennifer Butler, MEd and Brenda Thompson-Wattles, RDN Idaho Department of Education

As the old adage goes, breakfast is the most important meal of the day! This couldn’t be more true for our Idaho students. Our school staff noticed firsthand what researchers have been reporting about the benefits of eating breakfast. When kids eat breakfast, they are better able to pay attention, behave in class, and learn what is being taught.  It’s important on test days, as well as on all the days leading up to the tests!

Go Local - Promoting Healthy Habits and Boosting Local Communities

The following guest blog highlights Providence, Rhode Island school district’s exemplary commitment to purchase and source local food into the school meal programs. Going local economically supports RI farms and small businesses and provides opportunities for students to consume healthy, fresh foods and learn how their food is grown and promote healthy food choices.

By Providence Public Schools, Rhode Island

Providence Public School District (PPSD) is the largest school district in Rhode Island, serving 24,000 students.  In the heart of New England, PPSD has had historical ties to locally grown agriculture and food for centuries.  For the past few years, PPSD requires that RI-grown products compose at least 15% of all food purchases annually, helping to economically support the RI food system with local dollars, while promoting the environmental benefits of local land stewardship.

Community Eligibility: Flexibility is Key

There’s been a lot of talk over the last several years about the nutrition of school meals – where the ingredients come from, how they’re prepared, what the food tastes like, and how the meal is presented.  These are all important conversations for elevating the quality of school food service and improving the health and wellbeing of children nationwide.  But it’s also important to remember one of the most vital purposes of offering school meals: fighting hunger so kids can focus on learning. 

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a tool high-poverty schools can use to fight childhood hunger.  It allows schools in low-income areas to serve meals to all students at no cost, eliminating individual household applications for free and reduced-price meals and increasing access to nutritious food.

Community Eligibility: Navigating Speed Bumps on the Way to Success

When the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act authorized the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), schools in high-poverty areas gained another important tool to fight childhood hunger.  By the end of school year 2014-15, the first year CEP was available nationwide, more than half of all eligible schools had already jumped on board. 

Low-income schools of all kinds – rural, urban, elementary and secondary – recognized the potential impact they could have on their communities by offering meals at no cost to all students.  Yet, some schools encountered more bumps on the road to implementation than others.

Community Eligibility: A Win-Win for Schools and Families in the Fight against Childhood Hunger

Every day, millions of students across the U.S. walk into school with stomachs growling because they haven’t had enough to eat either that morning or the night before and eagerly anticipate getting a school breakfast.  Hours later, when the lunch bell rings, the same students jet to the front of the line to make sure they get enough food to tide them over until their next meal. For many students, school meals are not a luxury or a backup in case they forget to pack a meal; they are a lifeline. 

At a time when 8.6 million U.S. children lack consistent access to food at home, the availability of nutritious meals at school is more important than ever. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) provides an opportunity for schools to not only feed more kids, but can help with the bottom line.

USDA Team Nutrition Grants Promote Healthier Meals for Our Nation's Schoolchildren

Schools are successfully serving more nutritious meals to America's students, and healthier meals mean healthier kids. USDA is constantly working to do everything we can to support school nutrition professionals as they work to provide kids the nutrition they need to learn and develop into healthy adults. To further assist schools, USDA announced the availability of up to $5.5 million in Team Nutrition training grants for states for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. These grants focus on the implementation of Smarter Lunchrooms - an innovative strategy using behavioral economics to encourage healthy eating in the cafeteria - as well as the healthier meal standards, HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC), USDA Foods, nutrition education, and wellness activities in schools and child care institutions. To apply for the grants, state agencies should visit www.grants.gov.

Here are some examples of how Team Nutrition grants have helped schools in the past:

USDA Then and Now: Part IV

Thanks for tuning in this month to our installments of USDA Then and Now photo series on the amazing innovations that have helped rural America grow and respond to a constantly evolving agricultural landscape. Here you can see Part I, Part II, and Part III.

In our fourth and final Then and Now, we look to some of our long-standing historical programs and missions then, versus how they look today in 2014.

Please keep your stories coming using #AgInnovates!