To Fight Obesity, The USDA Is Getting Locally Grown Veggies Into Cafeterias

CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced the rollout of $5 million in grants that will fund programs aimed at connecting cafeterias with local farmers and increasing children’s access to healthy foods.

During this grant cycle, more than 80 projects in 42 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands will start or continue their efforts to foster healthy eating habits among school children. In the Tift County School System in Georgia, for example, officials will modify a school bus so that it serves as a farm bus and rolling classroom. In Delaware, students will grow and process foods and create new menus. In South Dakota, members of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council will provide locally raised tribal bison meat into the local school lunch programs.

In all, 3 million children across the country will be affected.

“USDA is proud to support communities across the country as they plan and implement innovative farm to school projects,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “These inspiring collaborations provide students with healthy, fresh food, while supporting healthy local economies. Through farm to school projects, community partners are coming together to ensure a bright future for students, and for local farmers and ranchers.”

While the Food to School program has been in existence since 1996, it has become more crucial now that the United States is in the midst of an obesity epidemic that has been fueled by the availability of cheap, high-salt, high-sugar foods.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the obesity rate has doubled among children and quadrupled among adolescents in the last 30 years. In the public health space, excessive weight gain among the young has increasingly become a topic of concern, with attention focused its adverse health effects — including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Experts say that developing healthy lifestyle habits, including healthy eating and exercising, can reduce one’s chances of becoming obese. In recent years, CDC officials have also recommended that schools play a role in helping students develop healthy eating habits, especially in cases where their place of residence, lack of access to medical care, and influence of the food and beverage industry may prevent them from maintaining a balanced diet.

Since 2010, schools across the country have used USDA funds to purchase and serve more than $385 million in locally grown produce. The grants have also supported a host of nutrition education efforts including school gardens, trips to local farms, and cooking classes. Events and trainings under these Farm to School programs have connected local farmers and producers with school food buyers and trained people in the area of local procurement, food safety, and culinary education.

These programs, however, could soon be a thing of the past if GOP lawmakers and national groups have their way. Next year, Congress will decide whether to renew the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the legislation that authorizes the USDA’s Farm-to-School program. In recent months, a growing chorus of GOP lawmakers and activists have spoken out against the legislation, citing lower meal consumption among children in rural areas and slow implementation in some school districts.

“As well-intended as the people in Washington believe themselves to be, the reality is that from a practical standpoint, these regulations are just plain not working out in some individual school districts,” Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), the lead author of that measure, said after a House panel approved a bill that would allow states to disregard new USDA regulations under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, according to the Boston Globe.

Regardless of the outcome, the ascent of the Farm to School program represents a shift in thinking among members of the public health community that has brought forth programs that address the obesity epidemic’s socioeconomic factors. Other notable programs attempt to go where the Farm to School program doesn’t by getting healthy food on obese children’s dining room tables. In New York City, for example, the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program provides families with overweight or obese children with “health bucks” that they can use to purchase fruits and vegetables at farmers markets in addition to nutritional information and recipes.