Improving School Food Requires Partnerships and Understanding (Part 1)

February 6, 2012

A 2-part series by Alison Hastings, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission; Beth Feehan, Director, NJ Farm to School Network; Deb Bentzel, Farm to Institution Program Manager, Fair Food

Part 1: Defining Farm to School in New Jersey

By Beth Feehan, Director
NJ Farm to School Network

“Farm to School” is a term that requires explanation.

It speaks to bringing locally grown foods into schools, enriching the freshness of school meals and introducing real food to students used to processed food. At NJ Farm to School Network, we say that Farm to School is a three-legged stool of: operations, education and policy. Local procurement and food service need to contract with an eye toward accountability (operations). School gardens provide educational opportunities, which can lead to positive long-term health outcomes as children change their eating habits (education). And schools—educators, administrators, parents, and students—take a more active role in creating polices at the federal, state and district level (policy). All of these efforts require collaboration, coordination, and understanding to succeed.

Stakeholders in the Farm to School movement include schools, farmers, policy makers, food service companies, produce distributors, food manufacturers and good food advocates. Across the Garden State, grassroots efforts to start school gardens have created a burgeoning network of school garden educators and advocates who are finding ways to fund and sustain school gardens and encourage teachers to use school gardens for all aspects of required curricula. Produce distributors are finding ways to source locally grown produce from farms, creating new markets for farmers in this densely populated state. Food service professionals are working to train their employees to rethink what they serve to students and to learn more about fresh produce and how to use it in the cafeteria. State agencies are working together to promote these efforts and show that collaboration from top to bottom can make a difference in how we nourish our children. And higher education is training the next batch of teachers and advocates who embrace using food to bring about changes in the American diet.

But progress and collaboration haven’t happened overnight. New Jersey is made up of more than 600 independent school districts, each running their own food service program. The variability of each district and thus, each school, is determined by unique economic, demographic and administrative structures. Anyone looking to change what a school is serving for lunch must, at minimum, do the due diligence to see how food is served, who runs the food service and what is available.

Improving school food is not something that can be accomplished without the buy-in from administrators, school boards, principals, teachers, parents and students. However, we cannot stand back and put the onus, once more, on schools to fix what is “wrong” with students today. Food businesses and service providers must be held accountable for the quality of food. Policymakers need to become informed about the unintended consequences of national food policy that has enabled unhealthy foods to be produced cheaply. Parents must take responsibility for cultivating lifelong healthy behaviors in themselves – knowing that children often learn from their parents first. And yes, schools must look outside the schoolroom…possibly finding solutions in the school garden or cafeteria.

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow: Understanding the National School Lunch Program

DVRPC and their partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog on issues of food policy and regional food systems.