Farm-to-school programs can provide opportunities for students, teachers, families, and the community, and schools that host these programs have seen increased academic achievement and positive health outcomes in their students. According to the National Farm to School Network, these programs have shown they can also provide greater support and income to farmers as well as strengthen the local economy. Nationally, more than 40 percent of schools have farm-to-school programs, reaching more than 23 million children every year.
In Texas, the Interagency Farm-to-School Task Force focuses on connecting schools in Texas with producers across the state. A Farm-to-School Program Specialist works in the Food and Nutrition Division of the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), helping more schools develop farm-to-school programs.
Over the last nine years, farm-to-school programs across Texas have worked towards improving the health and academic outcomes for students. TDA’s farm-to-school mission is to increase the amount of local foods served in the schools that participate in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, and even more schools are implementing innovative programs to bring more fresh, nutritious, and locally grown food to Texas students. The statewide Farm-to-School program supports schools seeking to educate students about local food and agriculture through garden-based learning activities, opportunities to connect with local farmers and ranchers, as well as the development of classroom lessons focused on nutrition and agricultural.
Austin, Texas, a city of nearly one million people, is leading the statewide farm-to-school initiative with programs ranging from school farms to free produce distribution for entire school staff and families.
Food Tank is highlighting 10 transformative and innovative organizations in Austin working to enhance relationships between schools, farmers, ranchers, and local producers, in an effort to improve child health, engage students in the local food system, and support the local economy.
Austin Independent School District (AISD) partners with students, community members, teachers, and administrators to run a Garden to Café program, which brings healthy, fresh garden grown foods into the school meals. Each participating school has a designated Garden Leader who is responsible for implementing the AISD Garden to Café guidelines and ensures that the garden meets health regulations. Each year, AISD features a “Call to Plant,” which is a request for all schools to plant the same crop to feature in seasonal menus. This year, they are featuring leafy greens, which will be used in a braised greens recipe, to appear in the November cafeteria menus.
Brighter Bites is working to create communities of health through the distribution of fresh food. Originally based in Houston, Brighter Bites has now expanded across major cities in Texas as well as Washington, DC, New York City, and Southwest Florida. Since it was founded in 2012, Brighter Bites has delivered over 17 million pounds of fresh produce and nutrition education materials to over 53,000 families struggling to access or afford nutritious food. Brighter Bites offers a produce co-op program in schools within high needs areas. Working with large suppliers, like food banks and Sysco FreshPoint, they select the highest quality items, which they distribute weekly to school families for 16 weeks during the school year and 8 weeks over the summer. Every week, both teachers and families receive more than 50 servings of fresh produce as well as recipes and education materials.
The Central Texas School Garden Network (CTSGN) brings together individuals and organizations interested in helping schools create, sustain, promote, and use onsite edible and habitat gardens. Their vision is to ensure that school gardens in Austin have sustained support, including staff, materials, and resources in an effort to improve student health and academic outcomes. CTSGN is unique because it seeks to create permanent funding for staff to manage school gardens. The City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability provides logistical support for the collaboration and Action Team participants work to identify gaps in the existing support system for public and private school gardens, create a curated digital clearinghouse for school garden curriculum and other support materials, create useable evaluation materials, and identify funding sources for staffing at every school garden in the region.
The City of Austin partners with the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) and Farmshare Austin to offer fresh, locally grown, nutritious food at reduced prices in areas of Austin that have disproportionate health outcomes. Fresh for Less includes a variety of food access programs. Farm Stands are community-run markets located in schools and community centers. They sell produce from local farms and SFC trains and pays community members, including parents from school host sites, to manage the Farm Stands. Mobile Markets are managed by Farmshare Austin staff and offer staple goods like pasta, olive oil, and beans in addition to locally grown produce. Both the Farm Stands and Mobile Markets subsidize prices and offer the SFC Double Dollars program, which doubles the value of purchases made using SNAP benefits. Currently, over half of the 14 Farm Stands and Mobile Markets across Austin are located at schools.
Green Gate Farms is a certified organic farm located in east Austin. The historic farm site was restored in 2006 becoming a community resource for neighbors of all incomes. The farm hosts a Farm-to-School initiative, collaborating with public, private, charter, culinary, and home schools to provide tours and a space for an outdoor classroom. Their most notable partnership is with Austin Jewish Academy, which has used the farm as a weekly classroom for five years. They work with the school to develop service-learning projects and curriculum resources that incorporate core subjects, religious principles, sustainability, health, and art with the daily needs of the organic farm. They have developed similar programs in partnership with Austin Girls School, Escoffier Culinary School, and the AISD Clifton Center.
IDEA Public Schools was founded in 1998 as an alternative educational approach focusing on student achievement and college readiness. They now serve more than 45,000 students in 79 schools across Texas and southern Louisiana, including six schools in Austin. The Nutrition and Wellness Department works to promote children’s health, well-being, and academic achievement through their Healthy Kids Here program with the goal to make IDEA Public Schools the healthiest district in the nation. Their Farm Program brings organic produce grown at IDEA school farms into the meals served in the cafeterias. The vision of IDEA’s Farm-to-School program is to provide students with quality food, practical knowledge, and meaningful experiences. Currently, they grow more than 12,000 pounds of produce helping to provide healthy and nutritious meals for their students. Additionally, the farms and gardens serve as educational resources for the teachers, students, and parents during the school day and after-school. Last school year they expanded to six school farms and ten school gardens.
Founded in 2016 by an entrepreneur, urban farmer, and software engineer, Lettuce is developing ways to create a sustainable and local ecosystem that grows and distributes nutritious, local food at more affordable prices. Their team is comprised of farmers, technologists, scientists, chefs, designers, and operational experts who create meal kits, packaged sustainably, and made with locally grown ingredients, that are delivered to homes and businesses around the community. They are committed to changing the modern food system and strengthening the local economy. Lettuce also provides hands-on learning experiences to students from Kindergarten through high school by developing urban farms on school campuses. They also use the school farms as fundraising opportunities, giving money back to the school as an incentive for encouraging families to sign-up for their meal kit delivery service.
Sustainable Food Center (SFC) runs a Farm-to-School program working to bridge the gap between local farms and school cafeterias. They work with farmers and school foodservice professionals to promote locally grown foods and provide promotional materials to schools, such as posters, veggie samplings, and Meet the Farmer Visits, in an effort to increase knowledge, awareness, and excitement around local food. SFC can also provide schools with a Local Food Promotion toolkit and staff support at school events promoting local, healthy food.
The Texas Sprouts program is a research project funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) bringing randomized controlled school garden interventions to 16 elementary schools in the Austin area. The goal of the program is to measure the effects of school gardens on childhood obesity markers, dietary intake, dietary related behaviors, physical activity levels, and school performance. A selection of the schools in the study receives a new garden, weekly garden, nutrition, and cooking classes taught by an outside educator, monthly classes for parents, and support to start an after-school Garden Club. The remaining schools function as the control group and will receive free access to the curriculum in 2019 at the conclusion of the study. Eligibility for participating schools included a high proportion of Hispanic children, children participating in the free and reduced lunch program, overweight or obese children, geographic location, and interest in a garden and nutrition program at the school. The study is currently underway.
Urban Roots is an educational farm that provides opportunities for young people to grow food, learn agricultural and leadership skills, and make a difference in their community. They work with youth ranging from 14 to 23 years old, developing their skills through food and farming and offering paid opportunities in the hopes that it will generate more young farmers. They have grown over 25,000 pounds of fresh food and regularly donate 40 percent of their crops to more than 10 hunger relief organizations in Austin. They offer a variety of programs, which include a Farm Internship Program, Food and Leadership Fellowship, and Academic Year Program. They also host educational hands-on farm tours, free for Title 1 schools and aligned with Texas state education standards.