What is Farm to School?


What is Farm to School?


Farm to School connects schools (levels kindergarten through 12th grade) and local farms with the objectives of serving more healthful meals in school cafeterias; improving student nutrition; providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities; and supporting local and regional farmers and producers [1].


Farm to School can include activities such as:

  • serving local foods in the cafeteria
  • farmer visits to the classroom
  • incorporating local foods and agriculture in curriculum
  • taste testing
  • cooking demonstrations
  • farm tours
  • waste management programs (e.g., composting)
  • hosting farmers markets
  • planting school gardens
  • incorporating school gardens into physical education curriculum [1]

Top 5 Reasons Farm to School is Important in Nebraska


1. Greater Fruit and Vegetable Consumption

One of the main behavioral targets for reducing the incidence of chronic disease (e.g., diabetes, cancer, overweight and obesity) is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption [2, 3, 4].  In Douglas County, Neb. (the county in which Omaha is located), less than 5% of children reported that they ate five servings or more of fruits and vegetables daily [5]. Farm to School programs are ideal to teach students about the path that food takes from the farm all the way to the table, and to instill more healthful eating habits that can last a lifetime [6, 7].


Examples of how Farm to School programs have shown success in increasing fruit and vegetable intake among school-aged children include:


  • A pilot Farm to School program in Riverside, Calif. launched a salad bar lunch from 2004 through 2006 and found that students who ate the salad bar lunch consumed more servings of fruits and vegetables compared to those who consumed the hot lunch option (2.43 and 1.49 servings of fruits and vegetables per meal respectively) [8].


  • Case studies suggest that incorporating fresh foods increases fruit and vegetable consumption and school meal participation [9].


  • Based on Farm to School interviews with seven Farm to School programs in the Upper Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States, it has been found that when students are served fresh, local produce, as well as when educational activities are incorporated, dietary behaviors are improved. Food service personnel suggest that students eat more fruits and vegetables when they are sourced from local farmers. This is in part attributable to the development of connections between the farmers and students that made fruit and vegetable items socially acceptable “cool food” [10].



2. Support for Local Farmers; Farm Lessons for Children

Increasing rates of obesity and changes in dietary composition can be traced partially to changes in agricultural policy and practices that support large, industrial scale, specialized producers that control the bulk of the food produced in the U.S. [11]. There is a decline in the number of new farmers, the average age of a U.S. farmer is 55, and there is a decline in the amount of farmland [12]. As a result, our culture has become more removed from agriculture realities, creating a need to reconnect with local food and farms. Farm to School provides an opportunity to teach children not only about where their food comes from, but also about local agriculture and farm-related jobs and businesses. Lack of connection with the people and places that produce the food we eat is therefore an important contributor to a shift away from fresh, healthy foods [13].



3. It is Earth Friendly

Farm to School practices are in line with sustainable agricultural practices not only because small farms often use fewer chemicals than large-scale farms, but also because local food does not travel great distances. Smaller farms can also provide greater diversity in production, which helps support healthier soil and watersheds [14].


  • The typical food item travels 1,500-2,400 miles from farm to plate [15].


  • The distance food travels before consumption influences nutrient quality. For example, tomatoes picked under ripe, then shipped long distances and gassed to stimulate ripening, have fewer nutrients than locally grown tomatoes picked at the peak of perfection [16, 7].


  • Buying food directly from the farmer often allows schools to buy food that is fresher than those that can be typically purchased through broad-line distributors that do not practice local or regional purchasing [17].


  • Shipping food products long distances (between production and consumption) contributes to unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, thus determining the environmental sustainability of food supply chains [17].


  • With less shipping, local food is often delivered using minimal packaging, therefore creating less waste.



4. Strengthens Communities 

Farm to School programs can provide financial benefits to farmers and local economies, as well as provide education and nutritious food to schoolchildren [6]. In fact, if each of the 791,863 occupied households in Nebraska committed to spending just $10 per week on locally grown foods, more than $411 million food dollars would be circulated in Nebraska annually, helping both family farms and the local economy [18]. Local farmers are supported not only through the purchase of their products, but also through marketing as schools promote the use of the products to parents and students through newsletters, websites and other communication vehicles. Parents may also be more apt to implement local foods in the home, expanding the profit for the farmer and enhancing the health of the child further.


Examples of key economic impacts:


  • In Maine, it was shown that shifting 1% of consumer expenditures to direct purchasing of local products could increase farmers’ incomes in that state by as much as 5% [19].


  •  A study from Chicago found that of every $100 in consumer spending with a local business, $68 remains in the Chicago economy versus $43 with a chain business [20].


  • A study in northeast Iowa found that if residents were to buy only 10% of food directly from local sources, it would bring $60 million into the region’s economy. In addition, if residents purchased locally grown fruits and vegetables just three months out of the year, it would create 475 new jobs, and $6.3 million in labor income would be added to the local economy [21].



5. Nebraskans See Value in Local Foods 

Based on a needs assessment conducted in 2010 by the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, it was discovered that key stakeholders and facilitators such as school systems, farmers and food distributors all see the potential positive impact of a thriving local food system in Nebraska.


  • When producers were asked if they were willing to sell their products to schools, there was an overwhelming response that they were “willing” to “very willing.”


  • School food service directors responded to the survey with great interest in highlighting local foods on their menus, planning menus around seasonal foods, and buying and highlighting a local product each month.


  • Distribution companies agreed that supporting local businesses was important and most were willing to change some of their practices to focus more on local foods.

Will Farm to School benefit the bottomline?


Many agree that Farm to School is a great concept, but some may wonder about financial feasibility. Can producers profit from it? Can schools afford local foods? How does it affect the bottom line for both parties involved?


Analysis conducted by Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED) concluded that there is economic potential for farmers to sell produce to schools, that food service directors are motivated to purchase locally, and that purchasing mechanisms can be developed to overcome some of the barriers to the farm-to-school purchasing connections. Read the full report here:


Analysis of School Food and Local Purchasing in Vermont Schools 


To conduct your own financial analysis, the Center for Ecoliteracy offers a downloadable financial calculator in its “Rethinking School Lunch Guide.”

How to Define Local


Although there are multiple ways to define local (e.g., within a state, city or geographic region), the most common and practical definition is a 250-mile radius. At this point, each school or company can determine its own definition of local. Local can also be defined by the existence of relationships formed between schools and producers. If you know your farmer, then it is likely that you know about your food and where it is coming from. The following map is an example of what “local” is for Omaha, Neb.


Successful Farm to School Programs


Omaha Public Schools, Nebraska


Where: Omaha Public Schools, the largest school district in Nebraska, has more than 49,000 students enrolled per year.

Who: Nutrition Services Director Tammy Yarmon provided the impetus for local purchasing for Omaha Public Schools (OPS). This Farm to School initiative has great reach due to the number of students and families involved with the school lunch program in this district. The Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition provides support on an ongoing basis.

What: Omaha Public Schools Nutrition Services division is committed to purchasing locally produced foods whenever economically and logistically feasible.  In addition, OPS has begun implementing school gardens that will be used for classroom and nutrition education.


  • When visiting with their current local distributor, Greenberg Fruit Company (GFC),  about purchasing local produce, school representatives discovered that local melons and squash were already being supplied to the schools. The distributor purchases local whenever possible, making local procurement more likely for OPS.
  • In 2010, OPS featured local cheeses and tomatoes on the menus including educational information about the growers. Now they are working closely wit GFC to source more local produce than ever.
  • OPS’ preference for local products is written into its bids so that distributors are notified that local foods are a priority.
  • Low-sodium, whole-wheat tortillas produced in Omaha by Mi Mama’s Tortillas are being used for soft-shell tacos, wraps and with scrambled eggs for breakfast. A majority of the grains used in the tortillas are grown locally.
  • Through a Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition has been working to assess the feasibility of Farm to School in Douglas County and also provides technical assistance to schools wanting to get involved. Part of this work included a needs assessment and a Farm to School networking and training workshop attended by school food service directors, producers, distributors and community members.
  • Technical assistance is also provided by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, School Food FOCUS and Community Food Security Coalition.



For more information contact:


Tammy Yarmon
Director of Nutrition Services
Omaha Public Schools



School Food Focus Blog Story on OPS
Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition


Mary Chapman
Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition




Independence, Iowa


Where: Independence Community School District (ICSD) consists of three schools, two elementary and one high school, serving approximately 1,345 students.

Who: Kelly Crossley began as food service director for ICSD in 2007 and immediately began serving more healthful food at both lunch and breakfast.  In her second year, she focused on increasing local purchases.

What: Independence Community School District is dedicated to sourcing food locally whenever it is feasible and providing healthier school meals.  It has also implemented a school district garden.


  • Besides buying locally when it is seasonal, ICSD also works with volunteers during summer months to freeze local produce for winter use.
  • In addition to the changes in the lunchroom, ICSD has made an effort to educate students about gardening, local farmers and other details of how food gets from the ground to their plates.
  • Students have learned about farming, gardening and food preparation through demonstrations and field trips.
  • Teachers are encouraged to discuss the menu with students before they come to lunch, and sampling occurs in classrooms, so students are familiar with foods before they get to the lunch line.
  • Kitchen staff members provide a sample size of the Farm to School featured vegetable on every plate, so that every student is encouraged to at least try it. On days when new items are introduced, at least two other familiar fruits and vegetables are available in case students do not prefer the new item.
  • ICSD has developed its own Farm to School tools such as bid trackers and specifications for each item that comes into the kitchen allowing for easier procurement.


For more information contact:


Jessica Weber
Food Service Director
Independence Community School District






Where: More than 120 school districts throughout Minnesota

Who: Farm to School in Minnesota grew from the commitment of the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships including Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, Office of Economic Opportunity and the Department of Human Services. Making this situation unique is its top-down, statewide policy approach.

What: Local foods are used in school meals, cooking classes and school gardens, and nutrition and agriculture education is facilitated in their classrooms, through farm field trips and via fundraisers. A toolkit has been created for food service directors along with Farm to School program information for farmers, parents and teachers.


  • Capacity is being built for Farm to School in Minnesota communities by engaging community members, fostering new partnerships and working collaboratively with state departments, non-profits and professional associations.
  • These programs contribute to and assist in the Minnesota Department of Health Great Trays Partnership, which offers access to healthier foods at lower prices and hands-on training to energize lunch menus with great ideas, tools and resources from around the state.
  • Hands-on nutrition education is integrated into the Simply Good Eating program to promote Farm to School.
  • Technical assistance is provided to schools participating in the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, designed to increase the use of Minnesota-grown fruits and vegetables in schools and homes.
  • Use of healthy, local foods in schools as well as student and parent knowledge of nutritional benefits and availability of Minnesota products are increased.


For more information contact:


Stephanie Heim
Farm to School Coordinator
University of Minnesota Extension

http://www.extension.umn.edu/Farm to School/in-minnesota/





Where: More than one-third of Vermont Schools

Who: Vermont Food Education Every Day (Vermont FEED), a collaborative project of Food Works, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and Shelburne Farms

What: Vermont FEED was designed in 2000 with the goal of creating food system change and was organized on three levels called the “3 C’s”:

Classroom: Standard-based food, farm and nutrition-oriented curriculum that involves
in-depth, graduate-level teacher training including summer workshops and in-class mentoring.

Cafeteria: Local food and nutrition education are integrated through food service,
in-cafeteria mentoring and peer support.

Community: People are reconnected to their food sources – the farms and farmers.


  • Vermont FEED offers consultation to schools and communities to support them in the development of robust Farm to School programs. Some examples of how Vermont FEED offers technical assistance includes Farm to School Action Plan Support; Food, Farm and Nutrition Curriculum Integration Support; and Cafeteria Staff and Local Food Procurement Support.
  • Vermont FEED offers workshops focusing on using the “3 C’s” model for building Farm to School programs. These “3 C’s” include hands-on activities, group cooking, break-out sessions focusing on taste testing, curriculum development and local purchasing. A field trip to a local farm can also be integrated into this experience.
  • Graduate courses tailored for a specific school and community are offered. Participants include teachers, parents, administrators, food service personnel, farmers and volunteers.
  • Vermont FEED offers a toolkit for Farm to School programs.


For more information contact:


Koi Boynton
State Lead
Vermont Agency of Agriculture