This is the fourth post in FBLE’s series on the Local FARMS Act.
The Local FARMS Act, a 2018 Farm Bill marker bill introduced by Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), includes a variety of programs that would support the growth of local food economies. One proposed provision intends to bolster the amount of local foods procured by school systems for school meals by changing the procurement policies specified in the School Lunch Programs chapter of the US Public Health and Welfare title, 42 U.S.C. 1758(j)(3).
Currently the title allows schools to specify a geographic preference for procuring unprocessed agricultural products. This means that school districts could preference locally-sourced food items, but they could not require that an item be locally-sourced, define what local means, or specify that only locally-sourced items would win bids. Non-local foods from large producers can often be bought in larger quantities for a lower price and therefore more likely to win competitive bids, especially given that food school food budgets are generally low.
The Act proposes to add “locally grown,” locally raised,” and “locally caught” as approved product specifications. A product specification is a description of characteristics that a purchaser is seeking in solicited items. Adding these terms to the approved product specifications for school systems essentially allows schools to mandate that certain types of food or a certain portion of the food that they purchase for school lunches is locally sourced. This would put locally-sourced foods in a more competitive position over cheaper non-local alternatives in competitive bidding processes.
This is a necessary step forward in increasing farm to school efforts across the country, but it does not go nearly far enough in providing support for farm to school, and it is unclear whether it will have a direct impact in the amount of locally sourced products provided in school cafeterias, since the bill lacks any funding component.
Before this proposed bill, schools were allowed to source food locally if they so chose. The number of farm to school programs has been on the rise, increasing 430 percent between 2006 and 2012. 42% of school districts surveyed by the USDA reported engaging in some sort of farm-to-school activity. Of those, 77% had served locally produced foods in the cafeteria. The growth of these programs was made possible through strong state legislation, and a 2012 study points to a causal result between state laws that establish farm to school supports, such as procurement policies and statewide farm to school plans, and the number of schools implementing programs.
Despite the upward trend, many hurdles remain on the path to robust farm to school programs, such as contract requirements, paperwork and a difference in the scale of need at the school and production on the farm. Perhaps the greatest barrier is financial. The USDA has a Farm to School Grant Program, which offers funds for schools to plan and implement farm to school activities; however, the program received grant requests totaling over $120 million in the first five years, with only $5 million to give annually. Simply permitting schools to source food from local farms is not enough to overcome these barriers.
Congress needs to increase funding for school lunch procurement and provide strong supports to schools to procure locally sourced food items and develop other farm to school programming, such as school gardens and farm education.
Luckily, there is hope for a stronger federal solution on the horizon: the Farm to School Act of 2017, introduced as a marker bill for the 2018 Farm Bill in September, 2017 by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) . The bill proposes to increase annual mandatory funding in the Farm to School Grants Program from $5 million to $15 million; improve program participation from beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers; fully include early care and education sites, summer food service program sites, and after school programs in the program; and increase access among tribal schools to farm-fresh and traditional foods, especially from tribal producers. This bill would serve as a good complement to the Local FARMS Act, and I hope to see it incorporated in the 2018 Farm Bill.