Schools buying local produce, but room to expand

Nov 13, 2013

Iowa’s school districts spent six percent of their food budgets buying from local farms in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Census. That means efforts to fill cafeteria trays with local foods have plenty of room to grow.

Across the Midwest, most states report 25 to 50 percent of their school districts are buying from local farms, growing edible gardens or teaching nutrition—all parts of USDA’s Farm to School effort. Corry Bregendahl, of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, says increasingly she hears from districts that want to get more local foods on the table.

"They’re eager to be a part of this, but there’s still some significant challenges associated with their participation," she said.

She says those include regulations, such as the competitive bidding process, and school kitchen logistics.

"The food service needs a lot of support because a lot of them don’t even have slicing equipment," Bregendahl said. "They’ve evolved to be warmers, not food preparers."

Bregendahl says when local food sourcing does succeed it can have ripple effects for the local economy.  A recent Leopold Center study found that local food system programs, which include farm to school, have created rural jobs--and at less cost to taxpayers than creation of some high tech and retail jobs.