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Getting Fresh with Farm-to-School Programs

Girl with pumpkin1

Originally appears in the Winter 2007 issue

These days, it is almost impossible to talk about children and food without acknowledging the epidemic of childhood obesity. Unhealthy eating habits — along with lack of exercise — play a major role in this epidemic. Only ten percent of children ages six to eleven eat the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. During the past 30 years, the percentage of children in the United States who are overweight doubled to 30.3 percent, and the percentage of adolescents who are overweight tripled to 15.5 percent.1 Statistics are similar in Canada, where the percentage of adolescents who are overweight more than doubled between 1978 and 2004, from 14 percent to 29 percent, while the adolescent obesity rate tripled from 3 percent to 9 percent.2 Seventy percent of overweight adolescents remain overweight into adulthood, thereby increasing their risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. For the first time in 200 years, children today are likely to have shorter life spans than their parents.

At the same time that obesity has reached epidemic proportions, family farming is facing its own crisis. Of all occupations in North America, farming is in the greatest decline. In the United States, less than two percent of the population is employed in farming, and the federal Census Bureau has declared the number of family farms “statistically insignificant” and no longer keeps statistics on them. In Canada, only 2.4 percent of the population works in farming,3 and between 1996 and 2001 the number of farms dropped by 11 percent.4 The farmers’ share of the food dollar declined from 41 cents in 1950 to 20 cents in 1999. The bleak outlook for earning a good living by farming is discouraging to the younger generation: only eight percent of today’s farmers are under the age of 35 and nearly half are over 55. With fewer marketing outlets, rising costs for land and water, and the growth of agribusiness, many family farmers find themselves having to sell their land to feed their families.

While a wide range of approaches is needed to address these issues, farm-to-school food programs help to counter these negative trends systemically. By making direct connections between growers and schools, these programs provide local markets for family farmers and healthier food choices for schoolchildren. In California, for example, students line up at salad bars supplied with produce from the local farmers’ market. A cooperative of farmers in Florida provides collard greens to over 300,000 children throughout the South. In North Carolina, schools have the option of purchasing produce grown in the state through the Department of Defense’s “DoD Fresh” program. These are just a few examples of what’s happening in over 400 school districts and 22 states nationwide.

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Marion Kalb is the Director of the National Farm to School Program for the Community Food Security Coalition in Davis, California.

Parts of this article are excerpted from Linking Farms with Schools: A Guide to Understanding Farm-to-School Programs for Schools, Farmers and Organizers by Marion Kalb, Kristen Markley, and Sara Tedeschi, Community Food Security Coalition, 2004, <www.foodsecurity.org>.