“In the bigger picture, school meals need to be seen as an opportunity and core element of what the student experience in schools is about. The connections between nutrition and educational outcomes are often lost, and need to be highlighted.” – Anupama Joshi
Anupama Joshi co-founded the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) in 2007 and now serves as the executive director. For more than two decades, Ms. Joshi has worked on nutrition, agriculture and food systems issues around the world. She has worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Pesticide Action Network, served on the boards of Food Corps and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers and has co-authored a book: Food Justice (with Robert Gottlieb).
About the National Farm to School Network: NFSN serves as the information, advocacy and networking hub for communities working to encourage farm to school programs by supporting local food sourcing as well as food and agriculture education in school systems and preschools. NFSN was launched by a collaborative of more than thirty organizations in 2007. The organization works at the local, state, regional and national levels to connect and grow the farm to school movement. The network includes national staff, eight regional lead agencies, 51 state leads, an advisory board and thousands of supporters and advocates around the nation. Initially led by staff from the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) and the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at Occidental College, NFSN is now a project of the Tides Center.
The NFSN is driven by the premise that “farm to school empowers children and their families to make informed food choices while strengthening the local economy and contributing to vibrant communities.”
Q: The farm to school movement has grown from a handful of schools in the late 1990s to more than 40,000 schools in all fifty states. When you started this work did you think that the network would grow to be so large?
Anupama: No. I don’t think anyone engaged in farm to school across the country or in planning the network thought it would get this big so soon. In 2007, the National Farm to School Network was set up. We conducted a visioning activity that encouraged us to develop headlines we might read about farm to school in 2020. One of our headlines was that we would have farm to school in all fifty states by that year. We were able to reach that goal much sooner in 2011…in less than half the time.
The speed with which this has come to fruition is phenomenal. We didn’t think it would be so present in so many schools. And the concept has become much more institutionalized in the United States as we’ve seen significant policy gains at the federal and state levels. It’s really heartening to see where and how this movement has grown. In reflecting on how much time it would take to get us involved in all fifty states, we started with baby steps but very quickly started taking big leaps and strides from there.
Q: The concept of farm to institution has grown rapidly in the United States. In what ways do you connect with the other networks?
Anupama: Programmatically we have conversations with others about the ways in which we organize our work. K-12 and early care systems, the main focus of our work, are quite different than college and hospital food systems. We’ve learned a lot in our work with other institutions. Both college and hospital food service have much more flexibility in what they can do, so K-12 and early care operators are distinctly different in terms of their core areas of service. Additionally, there are significant federal and state policy levers related to food going into K-12 and early care systems, which is less relevant when servings students older than eighteen and patients in hospitals.
Q: What significant policy challenges are you facing now?
Anupama: Right now we’re focused on major federal legislation influencing school meal programs – the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), which should have been re-reauthorized by Congress by September 30th. A Continuing Resolution passed by Congress extends the current budget through December 11th, but we are keeping the pressure on to ensure that Congress acts in 2015. We had a significant win in funding the USDA Farm to School Grant Program through this legislation in 2010, and are looking to expand on it in 2015. Demand for the grant program is five times more than the $5 million currently allocated to it, and we are seeking to expand the funding and scope of this grant program.
“Another issue that is front and center relates to the school nutrition standards, which has seen a great deal of pushback by legislators and even school districts. Some school districts say that the more stringent standards are causing them to waste food, waste money and that kids don’t like the food and are throwing it away. However, farm to school is a strategy that can make the nutrition standards work for school districts. Through farm to school activities like taste tests, kids become familiar with new foods and are more likely to eat those foods when they are served in the cafeteria. The three core elements of farm to school – education, gardening and procurement – all need to go along together to facilitate lasting change. It is important for us to keep lifting the success stories of school districts using farm to school effectively to meet the nutrition standards.”
Q: What future food policies might be important for your work?
Anupama: Outside of directly supporting the Farm to School Grant Program, there are systemic issues in the school food environment that support or hinder farm to school programs. For example, the time allocated to school lunches is not adequate for a child to go through the lunch line, pick up a salad from a salad bar and enjoy it. Reimbursement for school meals needs to be prioritized. In the bigger picture, school meals need to be seen as an opportunity and core element of what the student experience in schools is about. The connections between nutrition and educational outcomes are often lost, and need to be highlighted.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Anupama: Farm to school is doable and everyone should try it. My suggestion would be to start with baby steps, but dream big and envision how you want to grow your program. Change one thing on the menu that is easy to substitute. Try that for a couple of months and move on to the next item.
“Farm to school is really about relationships, partnerships, and community-building. Don’t try to do it alone. There are lots of partners out there and a lot of learning that has happened over the last two decades. Don’t recreate the wheel: reach out to the National Farm to School Network for partnerships and information.”
Q: We now have students who have been in farm to school programs for their entire educational career (K-12). What do longitudinal studies say about the effectiveness of the model?
Anupama: The research to back up the longitudinal impacts of farm to school does not exist yet, although there are researchers starting to look at this closely.
There is significant agreement in the movement in terms of the potential of farm to school to influence impacts in other areas. Farm to school activities connect with multiple sectors, which include public health, community and economic development, education and environmental quality. The last two sectors probably have lesser engagement and research so far. On the first two, there are common understandings of the need for longitudinal studies.
We have developed an evaluation framework for farm to school using these four sectors, which includes priority outcomes and indicators The USDA Farm to School Grant Program is now using that framework as a guide for grantees reporting. Oregon, Washington and Minnesota are also using the framework to guide their farm to school efforts. It is exciting to see that we are gradually setting up a system for common metrics to be collected across the country to assist further research and understanding of impacts.
Editor’s Note: Earlier in October, the USDA released its Farm to School Census. Some preliminary findings? Nationally, 42,173 schools were engaged in farm to school activities in the 2014-2015 school year. Nearly $600 million was invested in local foods in school year 2013-2014, representing a $212 million increase from the previous survey…and a significant economic impact for communities. Respondents engaged in farm to school activities reported a range of positive benefits, including reduced food waste, lower school meal program costs, increased participation and community support.