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USDA Announces New Farm to School Program to Improve the Health and Nutrition of Kids Receiving School Meals

Last week USDA released a new farm to school grant program designed to help give children a sense of where their food comes from and increase the availability of local foods in schools. Joined by students at Southern High School in Harwood, MD, as well as school and elected officials, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan made the announcement in an on-campus greenhouse.

One of the first things she noticed when she walked into the greenhouse was the Abe Lincoln tomato seedlings. President Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture 150 years ago. At the time, there were farmers everywhere, but today that is no longer true. In fact, young children, increasingly removed from agriculture, are more likely to recognize corporate logos than carrot tops growing from the soil.

Healthy, Balanced Plates at Southern High School

In keeping with dietary guidelines to consume lots of fruits and vegetables, half the plate at Southern High consisted of fruits and vegetables, and they were locally sourced as well.


I was thrilled to discover that students at Southern High not only can recognize carrots growing in the soil, they understand the very important difference between dirt and soil -- “Don’t treat my soil like dirt!” is oft repeated sentiment among agronomists. These kids also know their farmers. Lunch featured fresh, locally-grown asparagus (Godfrey Farms, Queen Anne's County), carrots (K&A Farms, Talbot County), lettuce (BayWater Greens, Wicomico County and Chesapeake Greenhouse, Queen Anne's), and tomatoes (Hummingbird Farms, Caroline County).

Lunchtime at Southern High School with Deputy Secretary Merrigan and Deborah Kane

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and Deborah Kane, USDA’s National Farm to School Director, enjoy lunch at Southern High School with FFA students.

As we struggle with obesity and associated diet-related diseases, farm to school programs like the one at Southern High give us a viable tool to help children make lifelong healthy eating choices. They also are a great way to channel school food dollars into regional agricultural communities. With this new grant announcement, we hope to enhance schools’ ability to work with regional producers, create economic opportunities for food producers of all kinds, and empower schools to increase or augment programming that builds food literacy among the nation’s children.

Helping schools find and procure regionally produced food is directly tied to the USDA’s strategic plan and a key component of the USDA Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF) initiative. In addition to being a key priority for USDA, farm to school activities also align with broader Administration efforts – certainly First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative – to increase healthy food options in schools.

I’ve heard the Deputy say that farm to school is “pitch perfect.” Others must agree. Within a half hour of the announcement, we’d already received the first letter of inquiry for this exciting new program. Authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and now administered through USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services, we expect to award up to $3.5 million to innovative farm to school programs across the country. Applications are due on June 15, 2012.

Congratulations to the students and staff at Southern High School and to our colleagues in Maryland, where every county in the state participates in farm to school activities. Indeed, our hope is that school cafeterias championing U.S. agriculture and proudly promoting regionally sourced foods that meet or exceed school nutrition standards will one day be the norm, not the exception. Abraham Lincoln would be proud!