Eating Fresh Here: Farm to School Systems Change

April 18, 2011

Let’s talk about food. Today’s blog post, part of the continuing series with Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission on strengthening our regional food systems, comes from another grantee, Fair Food, who is thinking about access to fresh foods as a social justice issue. As you will read, Fair Food is working hard to connect regional farmers to institutions (like schools), who are significant meal providers, giving access to fresh foods for all.

By Deb Bentzel
Fair Food

Food systems movers and shakers have long been stymied about how to make locally grown foods, especially fresh produce more accessible, available, and affordable for low-income city dwellers. At the heart of this challenge is fairness. Farmers cannot lower their prices if they want to remain in business and low-income communities should not have to forego food that is affordable, delicious, nutritious, and stimulates the local economy.

Fair Food, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, has spent the past 10 years working to better connect the region’s farmers with the wholesale marketplace. We’ve brought together wholesale buyers – chefs, retailers, public and private institutions, and hospitals – with farmers and producers, to help them establish good and lasting business relationships. In recent years, however, we have begun to explore how we can leverage our knowledge and partners to bring more local food to those with the least access.

Fair Food in the Kitchen

The Farm to School movement is about access to healthy, locally-grown and -produced food for children. Targeted to public schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, Farm to School efforts can range from implementing school gardens to providing locally grown foods in school meals.

We know how challenging it can be for schools to make even small changes to their operations and procurement practices—especially for the large urban districts like Philadelphia. With such a rich agricultural landscape surrounding Greater Philadelphia and with over 70% of children in Philadelphia eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, building a farm to school program and a new market opportunity for our region’s growers, just seemed like a good idea.

Fair Food started a pilot program in the 2009-2010 school year with 5 high schools. Thanks to champions from within the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), and their willingness to partner with Fair Food and other food-focused organizations, locally grown fruits and vegetables are currently being purchased and served in 25 SDP cafeterias across the city.

Fair Food in the garden

Fair Food in the garden 2

Fair Food, the SDP, and other partners accomplished this by starting small, building trusting relationships, and by making small changes first. Most significantly, the District leads this effort. Their buy-in, leadership and vision will ensure the long-term success of the program for years to come.

Collaboration has also been a key to success. Fair Food, The Food Trust, and the Philadelphia Urban Food & Fitness Alliance, have been knee-deep in “Eat Fresh Here,” our farm to school program since last September. By bringing our resources, creativity, and expertise together, we have been able to effectively and efficiently coordinate this program with other ongoing initatives. We have engaged youth across the city for their thoughts on fresh, healthy, eating, while supporting and empowering food services staff in cafeterias.

To date, over 52,000 pounds (about $50,000) of locally-grown produce has been purchased and served in the SDP’s 25 “Eat Fresh Here” sites. Cafeteria staff have received hands-on trainings and farm tours, engaged youth have been tasked with spreading positive messages around healthy eating and fresh foods, the team has created various marketing tools, and the word is spreading that Philadelphia is innovative, leading the way in the Farm to School movement.

The School District of Philadelphia plans to expand this program to 50 sites in the 2011-2012 school year, with an estimated “local food” budget of $250,000 for school meals. The District aims for long-term financial sustainability of this program. Their goal is to make local food procurement a written purchasing policy—good for our local kids, good for our local farmers, and good for promoting the larger farm to school movement. Fair Food looks forward to continuing to partner with the District, becoming more engaged with school communities, providing more in-depth evaluation of our program, and continuing to find solutions and build momentum for long-term, positive changes in school meals.

While we know Farm to School programs alone won’t solve the more deeply seated issues of racial, social, and economic inequities that lead to food insecurity, hunger, and poverty, we do know systemic changes like local food procurement practices are essential to moving fairness in the food system in the right direction. School food supplemented by healthy local food can and will build healthier children in Philadelphia, and other cities. More formal institutional purchasing policies that support local agriculture can and will stimulate our local economy and support our farmers. Good, fair food in schools is a good way to start.

Images: Fair Food

This series continues next Monday.  In case you missed them:

Part 1: Working Together for a Stronger Food System
(Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission)

Part 2: Collaborating for Healthy Families
(Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger)

Part 3: A Food Co-op Does Much More Than Sell Food
(Weavers Way Co-op)

Part 4: The City of Locavore Love
(Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation)

We need your help! The Dodge Foundation is overhauling its website, which we hope to unveil later this year.

Our goal is to design an innovative new site that is easy to navigate, provides a suite of useful resources tailored to your needs, and encourages you to participate regularly in online conversations, idea sharing, and collaborative projects. In order to accomplish this, however, we need your feedback about what features of a new website would be most useful and interesting to you.

We’ve set up a brief survey, which we hope you will take a few minutes to complete. The deadline is April 22.