Thoughts on Sustainable Food Systems

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Overcoming Challenges of Local: Food Hubs

Overcoming Challenges of Local: Food Hubs

Consumers have a growing interest in local foods. According to the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture, direct to consumer food sales increased threefold from 1992-2007 and grew twice as fast as total agricultural sales in US.1 Food produced to be sold at local markets, however, […]

Why Local? Resilience

Why Local? Resilience

Look, for a second, at that tomato on your plate. It probably traveled a long way to get there—on average, about 1,500 miles. In fact, your lunch has probably travelled more than you have: the average American meal contains ingredients from at least five countries […]

Growing Farm to School Programs

Growing Farm to School Programs

Gardening is essentially practical. There is nothing better fitted for the healthful development of children. It affords opportunity for spontaneous activity in the open air, and possibilities for acquiring a fund of interesting and related information; it engenders habits of thrift and economy; develops individual responsibility, and respect for the rights of others; requires regularity, punctuality, and constancy of purpose.

Miller, Louise Klein (1904). Children’s Gardens for School and Home: A Manual of Cooperative Gardening.

School gardens are once again a hot topic as the Farm to School movement in the US grows. Increasing concern for the health of our nation’s youth and emphasis on the environment have created a renewed interest in giving students more opportunities to learn about and interact with their food. Healthcare professionals see school gardens as a way to counteract diabetes and obesity; environmentalists feel that they encourage sustainability and conservation; and educators value them as a way of fostering hands-on learning, teamwork, and creativity.

The first school garden program in the United States was developed by Henry Lincoln Clapp in 1891, at the George Putnam School in Roxbury, Massachusetts. As they worked in the garden, students learned that they could support or hurt the growth of plants and organisms. In the New England Magazine of 1902, Clapp recalled, “The children not knowing how carefully young plants must be treated to live and thrive…were told plants resembled babies and could no more…be pulled out of their warm beds, deprived of their supply of food, or exposed to the hot sun, without harm…When the children saw their plants wilt, grow pale and sickly and actually disappear from the beds, they had an object lesson worth hours of lecture.”

Gardening became popular nationally during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The USDA estimated that there were more than 75,000 school gardens by 1906. School gardens were a way to reconnect urbanized American children with their producer heritage. An important reason to garden with urban youth was to teach “children to become producers as well as consumers,” and for the possibility “of turning the tide of population toward the country, thus relieving the crowded conditions of the city.” Today, the average American farmer is in their late 50s and the need to reconnect youth to the land seems even more important. Could the school gardens help provide the next generation of farmers?

As the first state to implement a Farm to School Grant Program, Vermont has been a national leader in the Farm to School movement, working to connect students to local farmers through education and healthy food. The Vermont Farm to School Grant Program, administered by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, where I am interning this summer, has invested more than $1.5 million in Farm to School Programs, impacting over 30,000 students over ten years.

At the beginning of June 2017, Governor Scott signed the Rozo McLaughlin Farm to School bill, which will further enhance Vermont’s robust Farm to School program. With the signing of this bill, Vermont’s early childhood education centers can now receive Farm to School grants. The bill also sets goals to increase the number of schools with Farm to School programs and the amount of local food served in all schools.

Farm to School programs bring healthy food to students who need it. In Vermont, 17, 091 children under the age of 18 live in food insecure households. 60,000 children in Vermont eat school food five days a week, getting more than half their calories from school lunch, breakfast, and snack. What kids eat in school and what they learn about food matters. Farm to School programs can help fight food insecurity and teach kids about sustainable food systems. Not only does Farm to School help feed Vermonters, it plays a significant role in Vermont’s economy. Vermont schools purchase nearly $1 million in local food.

School gardens have existed in the US for over a century, but the potential of school gardens and all Farm to School programs to encourage a healthy lifestyle, reconnect young students to the food system and to build healthier communities is something we can realize today.

My Diary

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Consumers have a growing interest in local foods. According to the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture, direct to consumer food sales increased threefold from 1992-2007 and grew twice as fast as total agricultural sales in US.1 Food produced to be sold at local markets, however, still accounts for a tiny amount of agricultural production. Between 1978-2007, farms that engaged in direct-to-consumer food sales represented only 5.5% of all farms and 0.3% of total farm sales.2 Many small farmers selling their produce locally struggle to compete with gigantic industrial farms whose domination of the market allow them to sell their food more cheaply.

Creating local “food hubs” to address some of the existing gaps in local food distribution is a way to overcome these challenges. Food hubs are facilities that help with aggregation, storage, distribution, and/or marketing of locally produced food. Food hubs are an expanding idea; there are now hundreds of food hubs in the US that help nurture vibrant local food systems.

The area along the Winookski River, north of Burlington used to be a dumping ground, where residents would leave junk that wouldn’t fit in their garbage bins. But now these fields now have lettuce, flowers and tomatoes. The 350 acre area is known as the Intervale, home to a handful of farms taking advantage of low-rent “incubator” land. It is not only been re-purposed for agriculture, but helped make local, high-quality produce accessible to all residents of Burlington through a CSA-like program where locals pick up their weekly bundles at various sites around the city.

The scale of these efforts are still small, but historically, we have seen that local food production can grow quickly when needed. During World War II, Americans planted Victory Gardens and produced 40% of the vegetables grown in the US.3 When food prices spiked in 2008, many Caribbean countries invested in local agriculture to reduce reliance on imported food. Today Antigua and Barbuda produce nearly half of their own food, up from 20% in 2009.