Farm to School efforts that connect K-12 students to foods produced nearby are growing by leaps and bounds. Across the country, more than 12,000 schools are involved. In IATP’s home state of Minnesota, nearly 150 school districts serving two-thirds of Minnesota’s students are now offering locally and regionally grown foods.
With USDA’s support, IATP will begin working on a couple of the key challenges and opportunities now facing the Farm to School movement. One of those challenges is that in the Northern half of the United States the harvest season for fresh fruits and vegetables only partially overlaps with the school year (primarily in September and October). Another is that, while fresh fruits and vegetables have been a very successful starting point for Farm to School procurement, we need to engage a broader swath of the agricultural community and to impact more and more types of food on the tray.
And lastly, we need to complement innovation at the school and district level with more collaboration across multiple districts. School districts acting individually are challenged to have a significant impact on larger supply chains or to create enough demand to support new product development by food entrepreneurs. By working together, districts can identify opportunities for new types of products and collaborate with farmers, food processors and other supply chain players to provide markets for those foods.
Given these realities, IATP will begin two areas of research. First, we’ll explore avenues for more strategically expanding “season extension” methods (such as hoophouses) for growing fruits and vegetables year-round in the Upper Midwest, specifically for the K-12 market place. We will draw from the experiences of growers in our region and also draw insight from regions internationally and domestically where season extension practices are widely used.
Second, we will assess opportunities for regional producers of dried beans, grains and related foods to meet growing K-12 interest in these products. The new federal school meal requirements, which will require greater use of whole grains, legumes and the like, provide a powerful policy lever to expand K-12 demand for these foods. Exploring how suppliers and schools can collaborate in building that market will be core to our analysis.
And lastly, we’ll be partnering with School Food FOCUS, a national network of 34 large urban school districts working to expand the use of regionally grown, sustainably produced, healthful foods in schools. Along with our partners—the St. Paul and Minneapolis Public School districts—we’ll be working together on FOCUS’ newly launched Regional Learning Lab. The lab will enable larger districts stretching from Omaha to Detroit to work shoulder-to-shoulder on school food innovation, including strategies that benefit our farmers and local economies right here, close to home.
We look forward to staying in touch with you as this work progresses. Please keep an eye out for IATP’s forthcoming analysis of another approach to “extending the season”: small and mid-scale strategies for freezing locally grown fruits and vegetables. If you’d like us to email you the report when we release it, just let us know.