I’m a vegetable teacher. During afterschool programs, I’ve watched children chew on chard, bite into beets and rave over radishes. But this wasn’t always the case in public schools: Only since 2013 have federally-funded farm-to-school programs helped increase the number of locally grown vegetables in schools.
At Food Literacy Center, I lead a hands-on, farm-to-school program that includes tasting, cooking and nutrition classes in Sacramento-area schools. We partner with school cafeterias and school garden programs like those offered by Soil Born Farms, providing a full-cycle local food experience for the children who need it most: Over 90 percent of our kids participate in free or reduced school lunch programs based on their low-income. For many, school meals are their main source of daily calories, and our partnership ensures that those calories are filled with local vegetables.
Federally-funded programs translate to sustainable farms and healthier children. Yet, despite improved efforts, funding remains lower than demand. In a state that produces half of the nation’s fruits and veggies, California stands to benefit by funding these programs. Why do we need farm-to-school programs? They’re good for the state’s economy and good for our kids’ health. Currently, only 4 percent of children eat their daily recommended vegetables. As a result, 40 percent of children in California experience childhood obesity, and according to Dr. Rajiv Misquitta, president-elect of the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society, childhood diabetes cases are on the rise.
“By mid-century it’s projected to increase tremendously, unless we change the trajectory of what we do,” Misquitta says. “[Change] is not going to come from medications, but from lifestyle.” He adds that teaching children about healthy lifestyle habits at the youngest age possible increases the hope that they will adopt these habits, such as eating their vegetables. At the Food Literacy Center, after just three months of programming, we see children begin to do exactly what Dr. Misquitta calls for: forming the healthy habit of eating their vegetables.
More funding is needed to reach every child in California. The state has much to gain by increasing funding for farm-to-school programs due to its robust agricultural economy.
U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for farm-to-school programs was designed primarily to help school nutrition service programs “access more locally produced foods,” according to the department’s website. There is a two-fold outcome to creating sustainable, economic partnerships between local farmers and one of the largest purchasers of produce in the nation: public schools. By buying from local farmers, school districts can meet important nutrition standards for meals served on their campuses.
Yet, nationally, funding is limited for such programs.
According to the USDA’s website, between 2013 and 2015, 1,067 agencies requested $78 million in farm-to-school funds. However, less than 20 percent of applications received awards. Those grants totaled $15 million, leaving $63 million in requests unfunded. These programs include activities such as school gardens, cooking programs and adding more local produce to cafeteria menus.
Compare this to the $147 billion that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that our country spends on medical costs associated with obesity. California spends $21 billion each year, more than any other state, on the consequences of obesity. A little broccoli can go a long way to preventing diet-related diseases from gaining hold in the first place — and it certainly costs less.
California is active with farm-to-school programs, ranking first for funding in the nation. Yet, within the state, only 13 percent of requested dollars have been granted. More children in more schools need access to these programs to protect their health — and schools and nonprofits need the funding to make it happen.
“With 45,000 students, our district is the 10th largest in the state, and we have literally thousands of students that would significantly benefit from early nutrition and proper food education,” says Jay Hansen, Sacramento City Unified School District board president and a Food Literacy Center board member.
The Sacramento City Unified School District received its first Farm-to-School grant in 2016, for $100,000, partnering with Food Literacy Center and Soil Born Farms. In its first year, the program spent $118,118 on local vegetable purchases. The farm-to-school funds ensure that dollars spent on produce stay in-state. The district has also developed relationships with 12 new, local farmers that were not working with the district previously.
Yet, even this well-received farm-to-school program is limited. The small grant size, split between three agencies, is only large enough to fund cooking and garden programs in three of the district’s 44 elementary schools. The program was recently awarded another $100,000 by Dignity Health to expand programs to two additional schools. But there are dozens of deserving schools in the district and hundreds more throughout the state.
Never has health prevention been more critical in the state of California. As chronic disease rates continue to rise, our state is equipped with the simplest solution: increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. It’s time for California to prevent rising healthcare costs by investing in programs that feed our kids and fund our local farmers.