Schools have sharply increased their purchases of locally produced foods in recent years while also taking other measures to reduce food waste and encourage kids to eat more healthful products, including installing school gardens.However, the drive to source from local growers through farm-to-school initiatives shows signs that it may be leveling off.

According to the latest national survey of school nutrition directors, nearly 60 percent of the school districts surveyed by the School Nutrition Association said they are serving locally produced fruits and vegetables. More than 52 percent of districts said they have some geographic or regional sourcing preferences beyond “Buy American.”.(By comparison, 12 percent of school districts have sourcing requirements on antibiotic and hormone usage in food animals.)

Meanwhile, the survey of 1,550 districts found that nearly 48 percent of schools participate in farm-to-school initiatives for locally grown foods, and an additional 21.5 percent say they are considering the programs. Use of farm-to-school initiatives is up from 37.5 percent in 2014 and 32 percent in 2011, which coincides with enactment of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which funded a new USDA grant program. But participation in farm-to-school initiatives is down slightly from 2014 when just under 50 percent participated.

Other steps schools are taking to get kids to eat better include using student tasters, something three-fourths of districts now do. More than 57 percent of the nutrition directors also say they have nutrition education programs.

“School nutrition professionals are determined to find new ways to ensure students enjoy the healthy options available with school meals and benefit from all the nutrients they provide,” said SNA President Gay Anderson, who is child nutrition director for Brandon Valley school district in South Dakota.

Wes King, a senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, says the lack of growth in farm-to-school initiatives since 2014 may be due to a combination of factors - inadequate funding for the oversubscribed USDA grant program and procurement regulations that make it difficult for school districts to source locally produced foods. The schools that aren’t participating yet may need financial assistance “to help get over the learning curve of navigating the procurement rules and setting up the systems,” King said.

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Farm-to-school initiatives are most popular among the largest school districts, those with 25,000 students or more, and in the Northeast. Nearly 60 percent of districts in both cases have the programs.

The survey comes as House and Senate negotiators are working on finalizing a new farm bill that could increase federal support for local and regional farm production.

The Senate-passed farm bill, which incorporates key provisions of the The Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act (Local FARMS Act) sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, would create a new Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) that would combine the existing Value-Added Producer Grants Program and the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and provide them with permanent funding of $60 million per year.

“It’s clear that there is still interest in local food procurement from schools and there is definitely a need and interest for farmers to be accessing new markets (local markets are tariff free); LAMP can help farmers and communities meet that need by investing in capacity and supply chain development,” King said in an email.

The survey also found that more than one in three districts have school gardens (34 percent). Another 22 percent said they are considering them. Rural as well as urban districts are trying school gardens. A regional district in rural Maine includes schools with hoop houses, orchards and indoor growing labs. In Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, vegetables from the school garden have made it into the cafeteria.

The steps that school districts are taking to reduce food waste include allowing students to select their portion size (nearly 63 percent); scheduling recess before lunch (48 percent); recycling food packaging (28 percent); and donating unused food to charitable organizations or composting food wastFoth 18 percent).

When it comes to meeting dietary preferences, school practices can vary widely depending on the region. Overall, 49 percent of districts offer gluten-free options (up from 44.5 percent in 2016), but more than two-thirds of schools in the Northeast do that versus only one-third of schools in the Southeast. Just under 40 percent of school districts nationwide offer lactose-free dairy products, up from 34 percent in 2016.

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