The high prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States is a public health crisis that demands our attention. In the past 30 years, childhood obesity has doubled among children and quadrupled in adolescents. It is estimated that one-third of children aged 2 to 19 are overweight or obese. There are several factors that have contributed to this increase. Lower levels of activity and more time watching television or playing video games, high consumption of calorie-dense foods, and lack of access to healthy, nutrient rich foods are at the top of the list. Farm to School, a grassroots campaign growing in popularity, may play a significant role in working toward reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity by providing healthy foods and nutrition education to children.
The first pilot projects for the Farm to School program started around 1996 in California and Florida under the Small Farms/School Meals Initiative. The National Farm to School Program was authorized by the 2004 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. Currently, there is no federal funding available for communities to initiate programs, but the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers grants, free training, technical assistance, research and information services, and policy support. The goal of Farm to School programs is to bring locally produced foods into the cafeterias of surrounding schools. And more than that, these programs present a unique opportunity to provide nutrition and health information to children in fun and engaging ways. School gardens and other hands-on programs allow children to learn about healthy eating in a manner that appeals to them.
The benefits of Farm to School program are many. School-aged children, local farmers, and the local communities all benefit from the program. Farm to School provides school-aged children with increased access to quality nutritious foods. It also enhances nutrition education through hands-on learning related to food, health, nutrition, and agriculture. The Farm to School program provides support to local farmers by allowing them to establish relationships with the school district and the community. Farmers are also able to diversify their markets, allowing them to increase their profit margin. Local communities benefit from purchases of foods from local farmers, thus supporting the local economy.
Farm to School programs have had a positive impact on the communities that have developed programs. Data collected from various programs have shown that the choice of healthier food options at school has increased fruit and vegetable consumption at home. Children have a better understanding about agriculture and local foods, they demonstrate a willingness to try new foods, and have reduced their consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks. These children have also reduced the amount of time spent watching television and have increased their levels of physical activity.
The Farm to School programs has experienced tremendous growth over the past 18 years. It has grown from fewer than 10 in its first year to more than 38,000 schools in all 50 states, 26 of which have supportive policies, as of 2012. Does your community have a Farm to School program established? What successes has your community experienced through the program? If your community does not have a program in place, resources are available to help guide your community as it establishes its unique program.