Farm-to-school movement gets financial boost

economic-forecast-headerEfforts to serve more fresh, locally grown foods in Virginia school cafeterias date back to 2007, but significant financial and organizational challenges have kept successes small until now. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced grants in December 2014 to help organizers move foods from farms to schools.

The first $20,750 grant is to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop and host the Virginia Farm-to-School Conference, which will be held March 18 and 19 in Charlottesville. The conference will focus on helping more school systems develop the local food supply chain that’s needed to supplement an institutional food supply network.

“Farmers are all about feeding people, so of course we’re interested in participating in programs like this,” said Spencer Neale, chairman of the Virginia Food System Council and director of commodity marketing for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “Since school cafeteria budgets are extremely tight, in the past it’s been difficult to get the prices of local foods down to where they are affordable. Plus institutional customers require reliable supplies.”

But some creative and significant concepts have surfaced to address those issues, Neale said. “Local growers are extending their seasons using greenhouses, and organizations that aggregate local food supplies are coming into being and could be tapped to supply these larger customers.

“It’s all about taking advantage of new opportunities, something farmers do quite well.”

Two other USDA farm-to-school grants also were awarded in Virginia. Appalachian Sustainable Development in Abingdon will receive $99,179 to increase the flow of local produce into three Southwest Virginia school systems and northeast Tennessee. Pulaski County Public Schools will receive $43,415 to develop a farm-to-school initiative.

In addition, Virginia is one of eight states selected to participate in a USDA pilot project for procurement of unprocessed fruits and vegetables established by the 2014 Farm Bill. According to the USDA, Virginia schools receive approximately $24 million each year from the National School Lunch Program. The pilot program will allow participating school districts to purchase unprocessed fruits and vegetables directly from growers instead of going through the USDA.