More states are incentivizing schools to buy local food

A growing number of states are reimbursing schools for buying locally grown and produced foods in an effort to improve children’s diets while supporting local farmers. Before the pandemic, eight states and the District of Columbia had programs subsidizing local food purchases at schools — seven more states have added these programs since 2020.

“There’s really been rapid growth and attention to local food purchasing incentive programs across the nation,” said Cassandra Bull, a policy consultant at Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems, speaking at a webinar on Wednesday. The efforts have been bolstered by the USDA’s new Local Food for Schools Cooperative Agreement, which provides $200 million in grants to states to help schools buy local food. And the universal free school meals legislation which is “sweeping the nation,” Bull said, often contains provisions that incentivize schools to buy local foods.

In 2019, farm-to-school programs accounted for about $1.26 billion in local food sales, according to a report published last year. While some of the programs only reimburse food purchases, others also cover the costs of equipment, training for school food workers, and farm-related educational activities for students, Bull said.

Maine was one of the first states to put a local food fund in place, in 2001, said Robin Kerber, implementation manager at the anti-hunger group Full Plates, Full Potential. But the program was underfunded and underused until a few years ago. It began to gain steam when it was fully funded in 2019 and added a full-time staffer. It was subsequently broadened to cover a wider range of foods, like cheese and salsa, and began allowing schools to purchase from distributors instead of requiring them to buy directly from farmers.

Under the program, called the Local Foods Fund, the state reimburses schools $1 for every $3 they spend on foods from the state or the Gulf of Maine. Every school district can get up to $5,000 per year plus an extra $500 if they participate in training, Kerber said. In the 2022 school year, the state reimbursed $125,210 in purchases by 70 Maine school districts that collectively bought a total of $375,604 in local foods.

Tracking what schools buy is “mind-numbing”, Kerber said, but it’s essential to ensuring that the program is actually spurring the purchase of local food. It also helps farmers know what they should grow if they want to tap into the school market. After looking at the data from last school year, she had this advice for farmers: “Grow carrots … Schools love carrots!”

New York State is in the fifth year of its 30% New York State initiative. It is a performance-based incentive program, which means that schools that spend 30 percent of their lunch budgets on local foods get reimbursed at a higher rate per meal — 25 cents per meal vs. the baseline of 19 cents per meal.

While the program is funded at $10 million per year, it disbursed just $2.5 million in the 2022-23 school year. Its growth was hindered by the temporary changes made to school lunch programs during the pandemic, said Cheryl Bilinski, the state farm to school lead at Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Striking the balance between making sure the money is spent on the intended products without adding administrative burdens is essential, Bilinski said. “The paperwork can’t be so onerous that schools don’t want to participate.”

California has a large and expansive program, the Farm to School Incubator Grant, which reimburses schools and early childhood education programs for local food purchases and funds farm-to-school education, among other things. It is expected to award $60 million in grants this year, up from $8.5 million in 2021, its first year. (The state also spends about $23 million per year in a separate local food purchasing program.) The incubator grant covers kitchen equipment, education, and staff, as well as California grown or produced food, with a preference for foods that are culturally relevant, climate-smart, and from producers that are small-to-midsize and socially disadvantaged.

The second part of the webinar, scheduled for August 14, will feature speakers from Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Vermont.