Whitney R. McKinzie and Maria Bampasidou
Farm to school programs are initiatives that connect communities and schools with local food producers through food procurement and active learning opportunities, bringing awareness to the importance of agricultural activities. Core components of farm to school include procurement, or local purchases of agricultural products; education in the form of farm trips, food tastings and other activities; and school gardens. Farm to school programs increase student access to healthy food, integrate nutrition and agricultural education, and offer enriched learning opportunities that can lead to changes in lifestyle. Moreover, the programs bring awareness of production activities at the local level and create economic opportunities for farmers.
Louisiana is one of the states that promote farm to school programs through legislative activity. Currently, the farm to school program is a partnership between the Louisiana Department of Education and the LSU AgCenter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Census records farm to school program participation, interests, activity implementation, related challenges and future directions of the program. The latest farm to school Census conducted in 2019 was answered by 153 school food authorities, which include public school districts and private and charter schools that represent about 747,000 students. Results reported a total of 981 schools participating in farm to school activities, with 69.4% of schools serving local food and 53% of participating schools providing food, nutrition and agricultural education. This report presents results from public school districts based on the census.
The farm to school program has gained popularity in Louisiana in recent years as more schools are integrating farm to school activities into their established curricula. During the 2011-12 school year, 59 Louisiana schools conducted farm to school activities on their campus. This number increased to 152 Louisiana schools during the 2013-14 school year and increased again to 606 Louisiana schools documenting the implementation of farm to school activities during the 2018-19 school year. Many farm to school programs are in the southern region of the state, with fewer programs located in northern Louisiana. Figure 1 presents information on the number of schools implementing farm to school activities and their locations during the 2018/2019 SY. Figure 2 presents information on the activities implemented in the 2018-19 school year.
School officials reported on barriers for offering farm to school activities with program implementation challenges being one of the most indicated barriers to program participation. Implementation challenges include lack of year-round availability of locally sourced products, high prices of locally sourced products and unavailability of locally sourced items from primary vendors. A list of key challenges reported is shown in Figure 3 below.
Category 1 represents availability-related challenges, category 2 denotes producer- and vendor-related challenges, category 3 represents sourcing-related challenges and category 4 denotes kitchen-related challenges. In this analysis, we examined which challenges influence a public-school district’s decision to participate in farm to school programs. We looked in two main components. Component 1 combines category 1, 2, and 3, as these are main challenges reported in the literature, and Component 2 is the kitchen-related challenges. Our analysis shows that these two components decrease the likelihood of a school district participating in farm to school by about 43%. As shown, the main barriers relate to local food procurement, and to that we can add seasonality of food production and location of the school district as challenges that can influence participation.
Agricultural production is seasonal, so availability year-round is one of the main reported challenges that may impede local procurement. Looking more closely at agricultural production and local procurement, there is a misconception that school districts located in areas with high agricultural production may request a specific crop. However, this is not always the case. For example, rice has the most acres in Louisiana and is grown primarily in the southwestern, central and northeastern regions of the state. Some school districts, such as those in Lafayette and Avoyelles parishes, requested local rice for their farm to school programs and are in regions of the state with significant rice production. However, St. Helena Parish and St. Bernard Parish requested rice as a part of their local procurement activities and are not located in areas with prominent rice production. This raises the question of how we define local and how producers, school officials and nutrition directors, and students perceive local foods.
Understanding what affects Louisiana school district farm to school program participation and implementation has various implications for members of the community. This information can aid policymakers in creating legislation that will help to ensure the success and longevity of farm to school programs in Louisiana. This research also provides valuable information to farmers in the community about the challenges that schools face and what may deter them when it comes to participating in farm to school programs.
Whitney R. McKinzie is a graduate student and Maria Bampasidou is an associate professor, both in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness.
This article appeared in the summer 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.
Figure 1. The number of schools implementing Farm to School activities during 2018-19 school year. Figure by Whitney McKinzie
Figure 2. Farm to School Activities during the 2018-19 school year as reported in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Census. Figure by Whitney McKinzie
Figure 3. Grouping of similar farm to school challenges from the 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Census. Challenges reported in terms of higher response rate and were categorized by the authors of the census report. Figure by Whitney McKinzie