Farm to school programs

Farm to school programs connect schools with nearby farms to incorporate locally grown foods into school breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. Local food can be delivered via salad bars, fruit and vegetable bars, breakfast or lunch entrees, or taste testing or snack programs. Comprehensive farm to school programs have several additional components, including school gardens, nutrition and agriculture education, recycling, composting, and food waste reduction efforts, as well as enrichment activities such as cooking classes, farm field trips, or classroom visits by food producers. Schools can implement farm to school programs independently; state and local policies can also support and encourage farm to school programming. Farm to school implementation varies significantly by the number of included activities, intensity, and duration of the program (Prescott 2020*).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased willingness to try fruits & vegetables
  • Increased fruit & vegetable consumption
  • Improved dietary choices

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Improved nutrition
  • Improved local economy
  • Reduced emissions

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that farm to school programs increase knowledge about, willingness to try, and consumption of fruits and vegetables and improve dietary choices among school children (Prescott 2020*, Rains 2019*, Kropp 2018, Landry 2018, Izumi 2015*, Slusser 2007). Farm to school programs are a recommended strategy to improve dietary habits and nutrition (USDA-Ritchie 2011, CDC-Fruits and vegetables 2011, CDC-Dietz testimony 2009, TFAH-Levi 2014, Berlin 2013*). However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Research suggests that more years of farm to school programming are associated with greater increases in fruit and vegetable consumption than fewer years (Yoder 2014*). Farm to school programs that include salad bars can increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption and can lower their saturated fat intake (Slusser 2007). Nutrition education interventions that include school gardening components increase children’s willingness to try and knowledge about fruit and vegetables more than nutrition education alone (Morgan 2010). Experts suggest education is a key component of farm to school programs, necessary to influence student behavior, promote healthy school meal acceptance, improve student health outcomes, and increase food security (Rains 2019*).

Rigorous research on farm to school programs alone is limited; however, assessments of school gardens, salad bars, and multi-component school interventions that are similar to farm to school programs show positive effects (Taylor 2013). Multi-component interventions that last for at least one year, increase exposure to fruits and vegetables school-wide, and integrate with existing curriculum increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption. Such interventions that also include encouragement from school food service staff, peer leadership, teacher training, and parental involvement have shown the greatest effects (Knai 2006*, French 2003, Howerton 2007*). Multi-component interventions that combine daily activities with special school-wide events can be more effective than daily activities alone (Perry 2004*).

One study suggests students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds with different levels of prior knowledge may have varying responses to on-site farm visits. In-school farm to school components such as food and ecology educators, curriculum, and school gardens, are associated with students’ improved knowledge acquisition during site visits and may mitigate inequalities in the educational value for students from households with higher and lower incomes (Best 2020*). An Oregon-based study suggests state farm to school education grants can successfully support implementation of farm to school programs in schools in communities with low incomes (Rains 2019*). Oregon’s opt-in approach to grant funding for farm to school and local food procurement (instead of the competitive application approach) has significantly increased farm to school program availability and participation among students from low income, non-white backgrounds compared to participation before the opt-in policy was adopted (Giombi 2020).

Interviews and focus groups with practitioners and community residents suggest four key themes can be used to assess community readiness to implement farm to school programs: school capacity, networks and relationships, organizational and practitioner capacity, and community resources and motivation (Lee 2019). Surveys of food service professionals in the Upper Midwest and Northeastern US suggest these professionals support farm to school programs because kids like the food and eat fruits and vegetables instead of throwing them away (Izumi 2010). Reducing food waste contributes to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the production, processing, transportation, and disposal of food (FAO-Food waste, Hic 2016, CCAFS-Campbell 2012). Surveys also suggest that food service directors are motivated to participate in farm to school programs to support local farmers and local economies (Colasanti 2012*), though many have concerns about food safety and distribution challenges (Pinard 2013). Surveys of rural food service directors in the Midwest suggest farm to school is perceived as difficult to implement largely because of very small food service staffs in rural school districts, lack of specific knowledge about how these programs work, and lack of access to local producers and chefs (Askelson 2015).

Surveys of growers in Mississippi and Vermont suggest that producers are motivated to sell produce to local schools both to increase profits as well as to improve community nutrition and increase students’ awareness of agricultural practices (Rosenberg 2014, Conner 2012*). Farmer surveys also suggest improvements for farm to school programs could include assistance building relationships with potential school partners, navigating the process for bids and contracts, establishing geographic preference for local fruits and vegetables, managing produce deliveries, and developing school capacity for scratch cooking through kitchen equipment and training initiatives (Lehnerd 2018).

After exposure to farm to school programs, parental surveys suggest that children request more (Jones 2015*), are willing to try, and consume more fruits and vegetables at home. Parents also report that their own consumption of fruits and vegetables increases as children share their knowledge at home (Barnard 2020*).

Farm to early care and education (ECE) programs are also exposing young children to locally grown foods, including education components, on-site gardens, and often increasing fruit and vegetable availability for families with preschool age children. ECE sites serving higher proportions of children from low income backgrounds appear to be less likely to engage in farm to ECE activities; experts suggest outreach to such sites may increase participation and improve nutrition environments (Stephens 2020*, Hoffman 2017*).

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

According to the national farm to school website, all 50 states have operational programs; programs are located in both rural and urban communities (National Farm to School). According to the US Department of Agriculture Census, 42% of school districts surveyed have an existing farm to school program; over 42,500 schools participate in farm to school activities (USDA-F2S Census). As of December 2018, 46 states and Washington DC had proposed farm to school legislation, and 41 states and Washington DC had enacted such legislation (NFSN 2019). At the national level, the Small Farm to School Act of 2020 (HR 7831) is proposed to establish a pilot program offering reimbursement and incentives to selected states for school lunch programs to increase purchases of locally grown and unprocessed foods from small farmers, provide healthier lunches for children, and generate a positive economic benefit for small farmers and local economies (HR 7831:Farm to school). Available evidence suggests established farm to school laws increase program participation and local food procurement (McCarthy 2017*). Farm to school implementation varies considerably across the US; state affluence and the rate of farm to school adoption among regional peers appear to be the strongest predictors of state-level farm to school rates. States with lower levels of affluence may need more federal grant funding to support program implementation (Lyson 2016*).

Program evaluations have been conducted in many states, including Wisconsin, California, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and Vermont (Yoder 2014*, VT FEED-Resources*, UNC-F2S, Azuma 2001).

Case studies of farm to school programs are also available from efforts in California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and the US Virgin Islands (National Farm to School, NFSN 2019). Many university extension programs house and support farm to school programs, for example Ohio State University Extension (OSU Ext-F2S), University of Minnesota Extension (UMN Ext-F2S), and University of Illinois Extension (UIL Ext-F2S).

Farm to early care and education (ECE) programs are also being implemented across the country. According to a 2018 survey, over 2,000 ECE providers established farm to ECE programs in 46 states (NFSN-Farm to ECE).  

The National Farm to School Network is also partnering with communities across the country to adapt and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including developing a relief fund, resources, and policy advocacy opportunities (NFSN-COVID-19, NFSN-COVID response 2020).

Implementation Resources

NFSN 2019 - National Farm to School Network (NFSN), Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School. State farm to school policy handbook: 2002-2018. 2019.

NFSN-F2S resources - National Farm to School Network (NFSN). Resources: Search our resource database.

USDA-F2S - US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). Farm to school (F2S).

USDA-F2S resources - US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). Community food systems. Building your farm to school (F2S) team: Resources.

USDA-CNSS - US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Child Nutrition Sharing Site (CNSS) resource hub.

ChangeLab-Establishing F2S - ChangeLab Solutions. Establishing a farm-to-school program: A model school board resolution.

SB2S-Salad bar - Salad Bars to Schools (SB2S). Get a salad bar in your school.

PolicyLink-LFP 2015 - PolicyLink. Equitable development toolkit: Local food procurement (LFP). 2015.

LHC-Rockeymoore 2014 - Rockeymoore M, Moscetti C, Fountain A. Rural Childhood Obesity Prevention Toolkit. Leadership for Healthy Communities (LHC), Center for Global Policy Solutions, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 2014.

OC UEPI-Joshi 2009 - Joshi A, Azuma AM. Bearing fruit: Farm to school program evaluation resources and recommendations. Los Angeles: Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI), Occidental College (OC); 2009.

UW CIAS-F2S Toolkits - Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (UW CIAS). Farm to school toolkits.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Prescott 2020* - Prescott MP, Cleary R, Bonanno A, et al. Farm to school activities and student outcomes: A systematic review. Advances in Nutrition. 2020;11(2):357-374.

Rains 2019* - Rains CB, Giombi KC, Joshi A. Farm-to-school education grants reach low-income children and encourage them to learn about fruits and vegetables. Translational Behavioral Medicine. 2019;9(5):910-921.

Kropp 2018 - Kropp JD, Abarca-Orozco SJ, Israel GD, et al. A plate waste evaluation of the farm to school program. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2018;50(4):332-339.

Landry 2018 - Landry A, Butz R, Connell C, Yadrick K. Evaluation of a theory-based farm to school pilot intervention. Journal of Child Nutrition & Management. 2017;41(2).

Izumi 2015* - Izumi BT, Eckhardt CL, Hallman JA, Herro K, Barberis DA. Harvest for Healthy Kids pilot study: Associations between exposure to a farm-to-preschool intervention and willingness to try and liking of target fruits and vegetables among low-income children in Head Start. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015: Research Brief.

Slusser 2007 - Slusser WM, Cumberland WG, Browdy BL, Lange L, Neumann C. A school salad bar increases frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption among children living in low-income households. Public Health Nutrition. 2007;10(12):1490-6.

USDA-Ritchie 2011 - Ritchie SM, Chen WT. Farm to school: A selected and annotated bibliography. Washington, DC: National Agricultural Library (NAL), US Department of Agriculture (USDA); 2011.

CDC-Fruits and vegetables 2011 - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Strategies to prevent obesity and other chronic diseases: The CDC guide to strategies to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS); 2011.

CDC-Dietz testimony 2009 - Dietz WH. CDC Congressional testimony: Benefits of farm-to-school projects, healthy eating and physical activity for school children. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); 2009.

TFAH-Levi 2014 - Levi J, Segal L, St. Lauren R, Rayburn J. The state of obesity: Better policies for a healthier America 2014. Washington, DC: Trust for America's Health (TFAH); 2014.

Berlin 2013* - Berlin L, Norris K, Kolodinsky J, Nelson A. The role of social cognitive theory in farm-to-school-related activities: Implications for child nutrition. Journal of School Health. 2013;83(8):589-595.

Yoder 2014* - Yoder ABB, Liebhart JL, McCarty DJ, et al. Farm to elementary school programming increases access to fruits and vegetables and increases their consumption among those with low intake. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2014;46(5):341-349.

Morgan 2010 - Morgan PJ, Warren JM, Lubans DR, et al. The impact of nutrition education with and without a school garden on knowledge, vegetable intake and preferences and quality of school life among primary-school students. Public Health Nutrition. 2010;13(11):1931–40.

Taylor 2013 - Taylor JC, Johnson RK. Farm to school as a strategy to increase children's fruit and vegetable consumption in the United States: Research and recommendations. Nutrition Bulletin. 2013;38(1):70-9.

Knai 2006* - Knai C, Pomerleau J, Lock K, McKee M. Getting children to eat more fruit and vegetables: A systematic review. Preventive Medicine. 2006;42(2):85-95.

French 2003 - French SA, Stables G. Environmental interventions to promote vegetable and fruit consumption among youth in school settings. Preventive Medicine. 2003;37(6):593-610.

Howerton 2007* - Howerton MW, Bell BS, Dodd KW, et al. School-based nutrition programs produced a moderate increase in fruit and vegetable consumption: Meta and pooling analyses from 7 studies. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2007;39(4):186-96.

Perry 2004* - Perry CL, Bishop DB, Taylor GL, et al. A randomized school trial of environmental strategies to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption among children. Health Education & Behavior. 2004;31(1):65–76.

Best 2020* - Best AL, Kerstetter K. Connecting learning and play in farm-to-school programs: Children’s culture, local school context and nested inequalities. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. 2020;15(2):190-209.

Giombi 2020 - Giombi K, Joshi A, Rains C, Wiecha J. Farm-to-school grant funding increases children’s access to local fruits and vegetables in Oregon. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2020;9(3):1-10.

Lee 2019 - Lee E, Smathers C, Zubieta AC, et al. Identifying indicators of readiness and capacity for implementing farm-to-school interventions. Journal of School Health. 2019;89(5):373-381.

Izumi 2010 - Izumi BT, Alaimo K, Hamm MW. Farm-to-school programs: Perspectives of school food service professionals. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2010;42(2):83-91.

FAO-Food waste - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food wastage footprint & climate change.

Hic 2016 - Hic C, Pradhan P, Rybski D, Kropp JP. Food surplus and its climate burdens. Environmental Science and Technology. 2016;50(8):4269-4277.

CCAFS-Campbell 2012 - Campbell B. Is eating local good for the climate? Thinking beyond food miles. Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), CGIAR Research Programs. 2012.

Colasanti 2012* - Colasanti KJA, Matts C, Hamm MW. Results from the 2009 Michigan farm to school survey: Participation grows from 2004. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2012;44(4):343–9.

Pinard 2013 - Pinard CA, Smith TM, Carpenter LR, et al. Stakeholders' interest in and challenges to implementing farm-to-school programs, Douglas County, Nebraska, 2010-2011. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2013;10:130182.

Askelson 2015 - Askelson N, Cornish D, Golembiewski E. Rural school food service director perceptions on voluntary school meal reforms. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2015;6(1):65-75.

Rosenberg 2014 - Rosenberg N, Truong NL, Russell T, et al. Farmers' perceptions of local food procurement, Mississippi, 2013. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2014;11:140004.

Conner 2012* - Conner D, King B, Kolodinsky J, et al. You can know your school and feed it too: Vermont farmers' motivations and distribution practices in direct sales to school food services. Agriculture and Human Values. 2012;29(3):321-332.

Lehnerd 2018 - Lehnerd M, Sacheck J, Griffin T, Goldberg J, Cash S. Farmers’ perspectives on the adoption and impacts of nutrition incentive and farm to school programs. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2018;8(1):1-19.

Jones 2015* - Jones SJ, Childers C, Weaver AT, Ball J. SC farm-to-school programs encourages children to consume vegetables. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 2015;10(4):511-525.

Barnard 2020* - Barnard M, Mann G, Green E, Tkachuck E, Knight K. Evaluation of a comprehensive farm-to-school program: Parent and teacher perspectives. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 2020;0248:1-15.

Stephens 2020* - Stephens L, Oberholtzer L. Opportunities and challenges for farm to early care and education in settings serving low-income children. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. 2020;15(1):93-106.

Hoffman 2017* - Hoffman JA, Schmidt EM, Wirth C, et al. Farm to preschool: The state of the research literature and a snapshot of national practice. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. 2017;12(4):443-465.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

National Farm to School - National Farm to School Network. Find a farm to school program near you.

USDA-F2S Census - US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). Farm to school (F2S) census.

NFSN 2019 - National Farm to School Network (NFSN), Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School. State farm to school policy handbook: 2002-2018. 2019.

HR 7831:Farm to school - 116th Congress 2019-2020. House of Representatives (HR) 7831: Small farm to school act of 2020.

McCarthy 2017* - McCarthy AC, Steiner AS, Houser RF. Do state farm-to-school–related laws increase participation in farm-to-school programs? Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. 2017;12(4):466-480.

Lyson 2016* - Lyson HC. National policy and state dynamics: A state-level analysis of the factors influencing the prevalence of farm to school programs in the United States. Food Policy. 2016;63(2016):23-35.

Yoder 2014* - Yoder ABB, Liebhart JL, McCarty DJ, et al. Farm to elementary school programming increases access to fruits and vegetables and increases their consumption among those with low intake. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2014;46(5):341-349.

VT FEED-Resources* - Vermont FEED (VT FEED). A farm to school project of NOFA-VT and Shelburne Farms: FEED resource library.

UNC-F2S - UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP). Farm to school program evaluation: Springfield school district, OR. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.

Azuma 2001 - Azuma AM, Fisher A. Healthy farms, healthy kids: Evaluating the barriers and opportunities for farm-to-school programs. Portland: Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC); 2001.

OSU Ext-F2S - Ohio State University Extension (OSU Ext). Farm to school (F2S).

UMN Ext-F2S - University of Minnesota Extension (UMN Ext). Farm to school (F2S).

UIL Ext-F2S - University of Illinois Extension (UIL Ext). Local food systems & small farms: Farm to school (F2S).

NFSN-Farm to ECE - National Farm to School Network (NFSN). Farm to early care and education (ECE): Cultivating healthy habits for our littlest eaters.

NFSN-COVID-19 - National Farm to School Network (NFSN). COVID-19 information & resources: Farm to school & Farm to ECE responses to COVID-19.

NFSN-COVID response 2020 - National Farm to School Network (NFSN). Local food in COVID-19 response and recovery. 2020.

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