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Farm-to-school programs touted in new state study

Eileen Buckley

In an effort to promote farm-to-school programs across the state, New York’s top fiscal watchdog has released a study that chronicles the growth of these initiatives and pinpoints the challenges they face.

The study notes that a significant number of schools have adopted programs that use fresh, locally-sourced foods in school meals since they were launched in 2001. Advocates said such programs teach children healthy eating habits and benefit the economy.

State comptroller Thomas DiNapoli told WBFO the data is enlightening.

“We actually have 298 school districts in New York participating in some kind of farm-to-school activity.

That represents about 43 percent of all the school districts in our state,” he said. “So it was actually somewhat encouraging to see that so many of our school communities already believe in the importance of connecting schools and school children with the farming community.”

The Buffalo School District is among the systems participating in programs.

“Buffalo was awarded a U.S Department of Agriculture planning Grant back in 2015 to help them identify the kind of procedures that would make it easier to locally grow farm good to be consumed by Buffalo’s youngest citizens,” said DiNapoli. “We’ve really seen in Buffalo there’s a very active student-engagement process in place.”

Buffalo selected 11 schools for a pilot program, according to the comptroller’s report. In each of the targeted schools, a “Havest of the Month” locally-sourced food item was served once each week. Students who selected the highlighted food item received a special sticker.

Districts spent more than $45.3 million dollars on local food with an average 11 percent of food budgets dedicated to locally-sourced products. These programs can cut down on trucks delivering food over long distances cutting down the amount of gas emissions coming from the vehicles.

“There’s obviously an economic benefit for our farmers. They have a ready market locally and they take a great deal of pride in being connected with the local community and the advantage for them is that they can save in terms of transportation cost,” he said. “For all of us, from an environmental prospective we don’t have to have so much of our food products be shipped over from great distances.”

But there are challenges in implementing farm-to-school programs, including New York’s limited growing season. Other potential impediments include logistics and staffing.

In an effort to make it easier to serve fresh, locally-sourced foods, some schools have created their own  food gardens and food “huts.”

Funding can also be a major challenge, according to the study. DiNapoli’s office said the current state budget earmarks $1.1 billion in federal funding and $34.4 million in state resources to support school breakfasts and lunches.

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