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  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
The Farm to School movement began in the late 1990s when a handful of schools across the country started responding to the rising levels of processed food in their cafeterias.

Since then the movement has grown exponentially, now with more than 42% of schools nationwide hosting some form of Farm to School programming, according to the USDA Farm to School Census. This number translates to 23.6 million students participating in programs and an estimated $789 million (and counting!) of funds being spent on local food procurement — a far cry from the movement’s grassroots beginnings. 

This growth didn’t happen on its own, however. From the movement’s beginning, support from state, federal, and nonprofit organizations has been an integral part of its development. The USDA has been one of the most significant backers; as early as 1997, they have spearheaded research, programming, and policy initiatives, first through their Small Farms to School Meals initiative and later through National Farm to School Program. Just this year, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the award of more than $9 million in USDA Farm to School Program grants, marking an all-time high of funding and projects in the program.

“Everybody wins with Farm to School,” said Purdue. “USDA is proud to help the next generation better understand where its food comes from, while strengthening local economies.”   

With the USDA’s help, the early 2000s served as a period of extensive networking within the Farm to School movement. Workshops were held all over the country to facilitate conversations between farmers and foodservice directors, and by 2005, a national survey estimated that there were over a thousand Farm to School programs operating nationwide. It became evident that there was a need for increased centralization, and in 2007, the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) was officially launched. The purpose of NFSN was largely to provide vision, leadership, and support at the state, regional and national levels to connect and expand the farm to school movement. 

This task of expanding the farm to school movement is no simple mission, but the NFSN has synthesized it well: its mission is to increase access to local food and nutrition education to improve children’s health, strengthen family farms, and cultivate vibrant communities. To do this, the NFSN focuses on three main areas of policy, capacity building, and movement building. With the help of core partners in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and all U.S. territories, the network ensures that these initiatives are being tackled on the local, state, and federal levels. They also partner with supporting members and network members who collaborate on the work. Their plan is simple but effective: streamline networking, centralize resources, and organize behind effective policy initiatives. 

In 2016, the NFSN took stock of its first decade of growth and created a 2017-19 Strategic Plan to structure its next phase. This plan had two general goals: “to articulate a distinct role for NFSN to institutionalize farm to school in the future and to identify refinements to existing processes and structure to ensure sustainability.” The plan itself is extensive, but there are a few main priorities. First, there’s an emphasis on transitioning from creating awareness of Farm to School to sustaining the movement’s progress and increasing its institutionalization. They’re also looking to further solidify networks across the country and streamline policy advocacy. And in that, they’re hoping to advance racial and social equity, as inequities are barriers to farm to school implementation. 

These same goals are being enacted here in New York State — as Farm to School becomes more widespread, supporters across the state are doing integral work to build networks, streamline supply chains, and increase the accessibility of programming. They’re also doing important work to make local procurement accessible to all institutions, not just schools.

“It’s kind of contagious,” says Cheryl Thayer, the Local Food Distribution and Marketing Specialist for Harvest New York. “If other institutions see schools making it work, they start to realize they can do it, too. We’re constantly working to build up the regional food supply chain to be able to answer their demands.” 

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