Green Living

March 28, 2013

Farm to College: Farm to School Grows Up


Story by Tricia Edgar Contributor

If you’ve been hanging out with food-savvy folks, you might be aware of the burgeoning number of farm to school programs. These programs bring food into the cafeteria and the classrooms, adding fresh food to children’s diets. Local farms and schools support each other, as the school buys produce from the farm to feature in its food programs.

What happens when farm to school grows up?

There are many other venues in life that could do with a few fresh greens, and the college cafeteria is one of them. Overcooked vegetables and turbo-charged, sugar-filled muffins don’t need to be the fare of the day in college, and increasingly, these institutions are also turning to farm to school programs to create healthier menus and to craft connections between local farmers, students, and staff.  Since many colleges have the population of a small town, connecting these centers with their local food supply just makes sense.

Going green gets simpler with local food made possible by Farm to School Programs. Photo: Harshlight / CC by 2.0

Going green gets simpler with local food made possible by Farm to School Programs.
Photo: Harshlight/CC by 2.0

On the farming side, the statistics have been rather grim in past decades. The tale of woe is familiar: small farmers just don’t make enough to survive, interest in farming is waning and farmland is being bought up and used for non-agricultural purposes. For students from varied backgrounds, a farm to college program can be an introduction to the engaging world of growing food and the politics behind food. Eating local food is a way to support these local farming economies and encourage future generations to farm.

Reduce Food Miles

Farm to college programs are also a great way to reduce food miles. Colleges are big food buyers, and that food can have a big environmental impact. Is it organic? Local? Instead of being flown in, the food on college campuses can come from the areas surrounding the college, greatly reducing the environmental impact of food transportation.

The Community Food Security Coalition has been tracing the continent’s Farm to College programs, and it’s unearthed some exciting stories. While the idea is new to some, there are hundreds of farm to college programs in the United States and Canada, and many of them have over a decade of history behind them.

Lessons learned

What are some of the learnings that North America’s colleges have gleaned from their years working with local food producers?

Universities can have a whole lot of food choices, but most of them tend to be of the fast and greasy variety.  If you’re looking for fresh vegetables on a college campus, you might well be in the middle of a food desert.  The pickings are slim, but that’s changing.  Farm to College programs bring food back into the academic fold, showing that higher learning can equal dirt under your fingernails and healthy food on your plate.

1. Combine Local Food and Agriculture Education

At UC Davis, the Sustainable Agriculture program works to support new farmers in the urban and rural environments. The college’s Student Farm is a longstanding agricultural endeavor that provides an opportunity for students from grade school to college to learn about farming techniques.

2. Create a Local Food Buying Policy

While you might think that activist students would begin a farm to college program, out of the colleges surveyed, the most common initiator of a farm to college program is the dining services staff. They’re also the ones who manage the majority of the programs. What helps them make the choice to buy local food? Many have created “buy local” policies for campus cafeterias. Grinnell College in Iowa recently won an award for its efforts in creating sustainable campus policies that include a local buying strategy.

3. Cultivate Local Farms

The availability of locally-sourced and seasonally-available food is one of the biggest challenges to these program coordinators. It’s one thing to have a buy local policy – it’s another to actually be able to source local food. At Amherst, students promoted the idea of creating a local farm to provide fresh produce for the Valentine Dining Hall, and the college is now working to make the proposal for a 4.5 acre farm a reality.

4. Get Involved in Food Policy and Education

At UC Santa Cruz, the College Food Systems Initiative works to get students involved in campus food activities. In February 2012, the college’s Chancellor signed a commitment to buy “real food” that is produced in a fair, humane, and sustainable manner. Farm to College programs are about good food, but choosing to buy local is an act that’s both political and educational, and bringing food to the political table is an important role for Farm to College programs.

Photo: (Featured Image): French Fries served in school cafeteria. Farm to school programs offer healthier food choices. Image Credit: klynslis / CC by 2.0

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About the Author

Tricia Edgar
Tricia is a long-time outdoor educator who draws inspiration from the temperate rainforest, where she loves to dabble in creeks, walk along mossy trails, and enjoy the smell of cottonwood in the springtime. She's an adventurer who finds delight in visiting new places and who enjoys going on outdoor adventures with her young daughter. You can find her at