Farm to Institution: Policy & Advocacy

As a grassroots momentum builds nationwide around farm to cafeteria programs, policy initiatives at all levels of government are beginning to catch up to — and in some cases lead — the movement.

Local Policy

The federal Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 mandated that every school district in the United States create and adopt a “Wellness Policy” by June 30, 2006. Wellness Policies must be developed with input from all local stakeholders — parents, teachers, school board, community members, etc. — and must address goals for nutrition and physical education, which can include development of farm to cafeteria programs. While policies had to be adopted by June 2006, adoption was just the first step. There is now the opportunity to get involved in implementing the policy, making sure the school board is accountable, and revising the policy as it becomes necessary. Anyone in the community can and should become involved; to start, see the Model Wellness Policy Guide developed by the Center for Ecoliteracy with Slow Food USA and the Chez Panisse Foundation or the Wellness Policy Tool at Action for Healthy Kids.

State Policy

A federal prohibition on geographic preference in food procurement prohibits many states from developing strong farm to cafeteria programs. Nonetheless, several states have been able to pass legislation to make it easier to get fresh, local, delicious food into school cafeterias. New York State passed the New York Farm-to-School bill in 2002, which amends existing agriculture and markets and education laws to make it easier for public schools to purchase New York Farm products. The bill also established New York Harvest for New York Kids Week and encourages coordination between the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets and the State Education Department. After conducting successful pilot to farm to school programs, both Oklahoma and Vermont have similar laws also making their way through the Legislatures. For an overview of other of farm to school policies and activities state-by-state, see Are you involved in drafting or passing similar legislation in other states? Contact us!

Federal Policy

The USDA Small Farms/School Meals Initiative, initiated in 1997 based on the cooperation of governments and local farm and educational organizations, provides outreach and technical assistance for schools to purchase directly from local farmers. The 2002 Farm Bill included a small provision for “purchase of local foods,” which encourages schools and institutions participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs to purchase local foods where “practicable.”

The Community Food Project grants program, established in 1996, aims to increase food security in communities by establishing linkages among various parts of the food system. Farm to cafeteria programs are regularly funded with this one-time grant. Learn more about some of these at the Food Security Learning Center Community Food Projects database (sort by Focus Area: Farm to Cafeteria).

The Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program, introduced in the 2002 Farm Bill, has been enormously successful at increasing consumption of fresh foods in the schools where it was piloted. The program includes the opportunity to source fruits and vegetables from local producers. The program has the potential to get many more students eating fresh food from local farms if its funding were increased and it were expanded into all 50 states.

There is some evidence that policies which set nutrition standards for “competitive foods” (those sold at schools outside of the school meal program) increase student participation in the school meal program. This is particularly true when fresh foods (e.g., salad bars) are also included in the school lunch offerings. See the report from the Center for Weight & Health at the University of California, Berkeley on Dollars and Cents: the Financial Impact of Selling Healthier School Foods.


Advocacy around nutritious school meals – and around policies to promote these – begins with the conviction and commitment of concerned parents, teachers, communities, and advocacy organizations. School meals are essential for adequate nutrition and a key to fighting food insecurity: food pantry directors and food bankers testify that demand for emergency food goes up in the summer when children are out of school and cannot get their school lunch. The obesity figures show clearly, however, that not only poor children need healthy, nutritious food at school.

One necessary area of advocacy, therefore, would be on behalf of federal policy to make school meals a universal and non-discriminatory program. At present, school meals are either free, reduced price, or “full price” meals. As author and WhyHunger board member Jan Poppendieck has shown, this creates “a burden for school administrators” and a stigma for poor children who “are reluctant to eat the school meals for fear of being labeled as poor” while many middle class children also refuse to buy school food. Poppendieck proposes following Sweden’s example of providing “a meal, free of charge, as a regular part of the school day to all students in the compulsory grades.”

Parents, teachers, and school foodservice administrators are becoming more open to the ideas of school food advocates because school meals are a unique opportunity to introduce children to healthy foods, and the long-term benefits of fresh fruit, whole grains, vegetables and delicious meals. The Wellness Policy, mentioned above, is a wonderful opportunity for building advocacy coalitions through the school district committees that are being set up.

As the farm to school movement becomes the farm to cafeteria movement and grows into farm to college, to hospital, and to other institutions, advocacy groups on behalf of nutritious food are emerging within the education, health care, and social policy areas. As a result of such advocacy and reacting to growing public concern about food and health, officials at Sysco, the world’s largest foodservice provider, and Kaiser Permanente, the largest health care provider the United States, are using more food products from local and regional farmers in the meals they provide.


Updated 10/2013