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Farm Stand: Buying local for our students makes sense

Election-year politics could threaten Farm Bill provisions

Healthy Food | September 4, 2012 | By Diane Conners

Farm Stand

Diane ConnersFarm Stand is the blog of the Food and Farming team at MLUI. Diane Conners is the senior policy specialist and directs the farm to school program.

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The school year is about to start. And after the Republican and Democratic conventions, Congress will be back in session. Many are hoping Congress will resume debating the new Farm Bill, including provisions that could mean more fresh, local food for students in schools.

But first, the story of Ron Adams, a food service director for a school district in Portland, Maine, who buys lots of local food for his school. Election-year politics related to the Farm Bill could kill chances in Michigan for a program like his.

Because Mr. Adams' school district was part of a federal pilot program in the mid-1980s, he can do something few food service directors around the country are allowed to do — instead of drawing down on a line of credit for products the U.S. Department of Agriculture buys at bulk prices for schools around the country, he can use that line of credit to purchase products on his own — including locally grown food.

Last year, he directed about 10 percent of his commodity purchasing, or about $16,800, to help his district spend a total of $125,000 on food grown by farmers in a 200-mile radius.

Mr. Adams' district could easily be in northwest Lower Michigan. It has 7,000 students. Traverse City Area Public Schools has 10,000 students and it, like many other districts in our region, is working to purchase more locally grown foods. Our schools are part of a nationwide movement — nearly 10,000 schools across the country now have "farm-to-school" programs, up from only two known programs 13 years ago.

The good news is that, in the currently debated Farm Bill, both the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee have recognized the growing interest among schools in buying fresh, local farm products. 

The House Agriculture Committee's version would allow schools to use their commodity dollars to buy locally grown food, like Mr. Adams does. The Senate bill calls for something different — approval of at least five pilot projects across the country that facilitate new ways for schools to purchase locally grown food; including, but not necessarily, with commodity dollars. Commodity dollars typically make up about 20 percent of school lunch funding.

The bad news is that the Farm Bill could get caught up in election-year politics, and both options could vanish. Other important Farm Bill provisions for local food and farms are at stake — support of the fruit and vegetable industry, expansion of programs like Michigan's Double Up Food Bucks to help low-income families buy food in farmers markets, and land conservation. But the House must first pass a bill, then the Senate and House can negotiate a compromise and turn it into law.

Those who promote farm-to-school programs stress that food and agriculture can be integrated into a curriculum that promotes both education and healthy eating. A school garden is a super science lab.

And the Farm Bill reminds us of a civics lesson: Citizens should drop what they're doing to tell their elected leaders what they want them to do.

*This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of the Traverse City Record-Eagle

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