WASHINGTON, April 16, 2014 - More than 1,000 stakeholders are gathering in Austin, Texas, this week for the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, an event that organizers say will build on a growing effort to source local food for cafeterias in schools, hospitals and other institutions.
The conference, entitled “Powering Up,” is drawing food service professionals, farmers, educators, policy makers, entrepreneurs, youth leaders, representatives from nonprofits and government agencies, public health professionals and others engaged in the farm to cafeteria movement.
“It’s an opportunity to learn from one another, develop new partnerships and share resources so that we can collectively advance the movement,” said Mary Stein, an associate director with the National Farm to School Network, a principle sponsor of the conference.
Organizers say the term “farm to cafeteria” encompasses all efforts to bring healthy, locally sourced food and nutrition and agriculture education opportunities to institutional cafeteria settings. This includes public and private preschools, childcare facilities, colleges and universities, hospitals and prisons, among others.
Stein told Agri-Pulse that the conference also gives stakeholders a chance to assess and hone the policy advocacy work that facilitates efforts to build the connection communities can have with fresh, healthy food and local food producers by working to change food purchasing and education practices at schools and other institutions.
In addition to advocating the procurement of local foods by schools and other institutions, Stein’s group also engages students in educational activities related to agriculture, food, health or nutrition, and it encourages students to engage in hands-on learning through gardening.
Stein says the movement has grown dramatically over the past decade, noting as evidence that the first farm-to-cafeteria gathering in 2002 drew about 200 people, while organizers were forced to turn people away from this year’s conference, the seventh over the past 12 years, after hitting maximum registration at 1,100 people.
Stein said the turnout in Austin is “gratifying” in that it shows the movement has gained traction across the country, an advance underscored by the most recent USDA agricultural census data that shows what began just a decade ago as just a sprinkling of schools participating in a farm to school program has now grown to 38,000 schools across the country that are buying food locally and/or are engaging in food and nutrition education efforts.
The Farm to School network leaders says a Farm to School Program run by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is significantly contributing to the growth of the movement. The USDA program is an outgrowth of federal child nutrition legislation and was promoted by the network, a vast range of local, grassroots advocacy groups and congressional champions like Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt. The program was established by Congress in 2004. But the real authority came in 2010 when Congress set aside $5 million annually to be used for competitive grants that schools and districts can use to implement their own programs to source more foods locally and to provide complementary educational activities to students that emphasize food, farming, and nutrition.
The USDA program, which Stein calls “a huge capacity builder, is this year hosting twice monthly webinars through June to showcase the variety of ways school districts can purchase local foods. All of the webinars, which are held at 2 p.m. EDT on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, are recorded and made available on the USDA Farm to School webinar page within a week or two of being held. Topics range from procurement basics to using geographic preference, to finding local producers, to buying local through a Department of Defense fresh produce program.
Conference organizers say that cafeterias in schools, universities, prisons, hospitals and childcare centers serve more than 40 million Americans every day during the school year, placing the farm to cafeteria movement at the forefront of the fight to end obesity and strengthen local food systems.
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