The last decade has seen rapid growth in the number of farm-to-school initiatives in the United States. Despite the proliferation of farm-to-school programs and the significant energy and resources that have gone into their implementation, there have been few systematic assessments of these initiatives. We use the experience of the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Project, a farm-to-school project in Madison, Wisconsin, as a lens through which to identify structural challenges faced by all farm-to-school initiatives and examine a variety of key tactical issues that are likely to be confronted during their implementation.
We confirm that these initiatives can facilitate the acceptance and consumption of fresh vegetables by elementary school children. However, we find that the possibilities for connecting the land and the lunchroom are seriously constrained by the structure of most existing school lunch programs. These constraints include the overarching food culture, the quasi-privatized character of most school food services, the degree of industrialization of many school food services, issues of price, procurement and supply, and the need for processing facilities.
Through the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch project, we learned that enthusiastic leadership from the food service director is critical to the success of a farm-to-school project. A cooperative approach with food service staff needs to be complemented by judicious application of external pressures. There are promising opportunities for students to consume fresh foods in places other than the cafeteria. Finally, an educational component is as important a part of a farm-to-school program as the connections between farmers and the food service.
We hope that this report will initiate a wider discussion of how farm-to-school programs are performing and what contributions they are making to the development of a sustainable food system.
Related Research Brief: Farm-to -School Program Provides Learning Experience