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Give Higher Priority to Farm to School Programs

by Margaret Krome

The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, held a conference call last week with about a thousand of his closest friends to talk about the Obama administration’s initiatives on child nutrition and physical activity. He started by describing the twin problems that make this a high priority for the administration: obesity and hunger. A third of the nation’s children are overweight, and 16.5 million children live in food-insecure households — those with hunger or fear of starvation.

For decades, the federal government has sought to address child hunger through programs such as the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Snack Program, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and Child and Adult Care Food Program. These programs are coming up for review as part of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which will occur this year, and attention will also be given to how they reduce obesity. Vilsack says the Obama administration is committing an additional $1 billion to this effort.

However, I was disappointed not to hear from Secretary Vilsack or see in the Obama budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2011 a clear commitment to fund Farm to School programs, which aim to get locally grown food served to children in school cafeterias. Among the groups working to do so are the National Farm to School Network and the Community Food Security Coalition.

Yes, Vilsack did say that it makes sense to have local farmers selling produce to schools, he likes the teaching as well as nutritional opportunities of school gardens, and he wants to see such initiatives continue. But he didn’t commit funding needed to make it happen. The $50 million that Farm to School initiatives require is minuscule compared to the overall costs of most child nutrition programs. Such seed money is needed to find ways to offer longer-term structural improvements in school food preparation kitchens and the distribution system. In the meantime, it helps children gain better eating habits and builds new markets for farmers and stronger rural economies today.

Farm to School initiatives are moving forward in many states, and Wisconsin is one of them. Bills in both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature would create technical assistance and other support for schools to purchase local foods, start school gardens, conduct creative nutrition education, and implement other Farm to School initiatives. Happily, at a time when so few things are bipartisan, the obvious good sense of Farm to School’s approach has drawn support from both parties. And it’s no surprise that in the Assembly, the bill’s lead sponsor is the Agriculture chair, Amy Sue Vruwink, who sees the economic opportunities the legislation offers farmers and rural communities as well as its health benefits for children.

First lady Michelle Obama recently launched an initiative aiming to tackle obesity through physical fitness, the Let’s Move! Program. It got and deserves a lot of press because, like Farm to School, it applies practical good sense to the way schools treat two of the building blocks of healthy children: healthy food and plenty of exercise. And if we’re really smart, as we build healthier children, we’ll also be building healthier communities and healthier economies. Farm to School initiatives at the state and federal level are smart economics and deserve support.

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