USDA Releases First Ever Farm to School Census

USDA Releases Farm to School Census

It’s no secret that farm to school efforts have blossomed across the country, but up until now most of the data surrounding these programs has been anecdotal at best. Don’t get me wrong—these stories and one-off examples are fantastic, but sometimes you need some hard data to back it all up.

And now we do, thanks to the first ever Farm to School Census! Conducted by the USDA as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the agency surveyed more than 13,000 public school districts to determine just how prevalent farm to school programs really are in this country.

The Results Are In

An estimated 8,800 school districts returned the census, for a 67 percent response rate. Of those responding, more than 40 percent  — about 38,600 schools in all 50 states — report having bought local produce for their students during the 2011-2012 school year. That amounts to more than $354 million spent with farms near their communities. And another 13 percent said they would be participating in the program “in the near future.”

The local products served by schools span the lunch tray, but fruits, vegetables, and milk top the list, as expected. Plant-based proteins, grains/flour, herbs, meat or poultry, and eggs represent areas of potential growth in the future.

As part of the census announcement, the USDA also rolled out a fantastic interactive Web site to give a snapshot of what schools are buying and what they plan to buy in the future. Easy to use and chock full of great graphics, the site even allows users to drill down to state and district level. It’s definitely worth exploring!

Making Progress

Solid Farm to School data has been hard to come by up until now—most was self-reported, or gathered by a patchwork of advocacy organizations spread across the country. The most complete estimate of Farm to School numbers seems to come from The National Farm to School Network, which estimated that there were 2,000 programs in 40 states back in 2009.

Today, the USDA’s census shows that 38,629 schools in all 50 states buy local produce. While you can’t compare apples to oranges (so to speak), I think we can all agree that this movement is quickly picking up speed. And, more good news for all of us following this movement closely: the USDA plans to launch another Farm to School census during the current school year.

Click image for a larger version.

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photo via Bon Appetit: At These Public Schools, Cafeteria Food Is Healthy, Tasty—and Locavore

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