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USDA announces partnership to reform school food procurement

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Brett Peveto

(Maryland News Connection) October is National Farm to School Month and the Department of Agriculture has announced a new effort to improve students' access to high-quality food nationwide.

While the typical approach to school food procurement has been focused on cost, the USDA will partner with the nonprofit Urban School Food Alliance to provide training and technology to school districts to help improve the quality of school food. The partnership seeks to bring regional farmers into the mix.

Katie Wilson, executive director of the alliance, said it will require some new approaches.

"There are lots of rules and regulations from the federal, state, and local level," Wilson pointed out. "But in many cases, those rules and regulations are not conducive to buying local, buying fresher foods. And so we really want to look at what are the best practices in school food procurement, that we could lift up and share with people nationwide."

Wilson explained the project is set to run three years with the option for a fourth. After an initial stage looking at different practices around the country, they will develop pilot programs to test new methods. The program will eventually identify needed regulatory reforms around food procurement.

The program seeks to shorten supply chains by bringing the produce of local farms into school lunchrooms. Farm to school programs sometimes include such arrangements but also focus on nutrition education, nature exploration, and engagement with food production systems.

The Baltimore City school district owns and operates Great Kids Farm, a 33-acre urban farm with a stream, woods, planting beds and greenhouses, and provides hands-on learning for students.

Wilson noted the Baltimore City Public Schools are an alliance partner, and their Farm to School program is a model for other districts.

"They have a fantastic program," Wilson emphasized. "They have done really awesome work in the Farm to School program and expanded it on their own. Because they knew that's what's in the best interest of their community and their kids. They do some composting out at the Great Kids Farm. They're an excellent model to show what can be done."

Great Kids Farm hosts thousands of Baltimore City students on field trips annually and engages thousands more with outreach programs where farm educators visit classrooms. They also host summer camps and have a small paid summer internship program for student workers.