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Issue Brief: America's Farms Feed America's Children

By Mark Winne

The concept of food security has been appropriated for different purposes over the years. Developed originally for its application to agricultural assistance in developing nations, food security was later adopted by academics and anti-hunger activists to more accurately describe conditions of domestic food insufficiency facing U.S. households (Food Security in the United States, Cooperative Extension System, 1994).

While food security in both its global and domestic context is defined as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life" (Campbell, 1991), its primary field of concern is the individual or household.

In reaction to a variety of emerging U.S. food and agriculture issues - such as low farm prices, sustainable agriculture, local food systems, the relation between diet and health, and limited access to affordable food outlets in many U.S. communities - food security as a uniquely household problem began to merge with the problems facing food producers and the larger food environment under the hybrid concept of "community food security."

The concept of community food security has also gone through many changes, but its generally accepted definition is "a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice" (Hamm, 2001). Community food security, in other words, recognizes the need to use a host of community-based institutions and sectors - from agriculture to community development to public health to government assistance - to achieve true food security for all households in a given area or region (Community Food Security Coalition:

At a policy level, community food security has emphasized the historical connection between the economic viability of the farm sector and the food security of lower-income (i.e. at-risk for food insecurity) households. This relationship has its roots in Depression-era New Deal programs, which distributed farm surpluses to hungry Americans. It was a precedent that was later followed by President Truman who established the National School Lunch Program for national security reasons, and President George Bush who established the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program in 1989 to increase low-income families' use of fresh produce at farmers' markets.

The growing interest in the meals that children are offered in public schools and the growing problem of obesity (61 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, Center for Disease Control/BRFSS Data) once again brings food security and nutrition to a crossroads with local agriculture. The American School Food Service Association estimates that 30 percent of the nation's 23,000 public schools sell fast food. To partially offset the impact of unhealthy food environments on children, nutrition advocates and school districts have turned to sourcing food for school meals from local farms. While a definition of "local" in this context does not exist, it is generally understood to mean food produced within the state or sub-region where the school district is located. The link is thought to have two benefits: children start the habit of eating more fresh, locally-produced food early in life, especially when their eating is supported by food and farm education activities including gardening, and farmers develop new markets with often higher returns for their goods.

While the result of this approach to child nutrition, commonly referred to as "farm-to-school," is still preliminary and largely anecdotal, evidence to date suggests that children will significantly increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables (and other healthy food) from local farms when they are prepared and served in a tasty and attractive manner. Similarly, farmers have expressed satisfaction with selling to local schools because it generates additional income from nearby customers (Cornell University, Wilkens, 2002). At least 68 school districts around the country currently operate farm-to-school programs with many more planning to do so in 2003 (Community Food Security Coalition, Marion Kalb: Overall, the interest in this approach is strong as evidenced by the first national Farm-to-School Conference held in Seattle in October 2002, which drew more than 300 people.

To facilitate the development of farm-to-school programs and the benefits they have to children and farmers, the Community Food Security Coalition has developed a proposal for inclusion in the Child Nutrition Act, scheduled for reauthorization by Congress in 2003. Known as Growing Healthy Kids: American Farms Feed American Children, the proposal would establish a competitive grant program of up to $100,000 per school district from an annual appropriation of $10 million. Funds could be used by school districts and community-based non-profit organizations to pay for development and start-up costs associated with farm-to-school programs. These could include the purchase of equipment and storage facilities, staff training, the development of procurement and delivery systems, menu planning, and the development of experiential nutrition education programs including farm tours, and the construction of school food gardens (Community Food Security Coalition, Megan Lott:

The Child Nutrition program, which includes the National School Breakfast, School Lunch, and Summer Meal programs, is administered by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Collectively these programs funnel more than $16 billion annually to local school districts through state departments of education. The annual food portion of that funding is more than $8 billion, a small portion of which, if directed through school meal programs to farms near the more populated areas of the country, could make a significant impact on the vitality of local agriculture. And as early reports indicate, the best approach to nutrition education is to begin it early in childhood and to teach it through experiential learning methods. The hope is that schools can help children develop a lifetime of healthy eating behaviors while child nutrition programs can support farmers and the development of viable local agricultural businesses.

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