Teaching Vermont students the value of Vermont food for both their own health and their community is an investment in future generations who will support agricultural policy, buy local, consider food system careers, and invest in resources for schools and other institutions. Schools purchase Vermont foods to build relationships in their community, and understand that the relationships have to be sustainable for both the school and the producer. However, pressures to prioritize cheap and/or prepared food are increasing due to decreased student enrollment, school consolidation, and administrative personnel changes. In addition, regulatory demands and food costs have increased at a greater rate than federal and state school meal reimbursement. School nutrition personnel, teachers, and administrators are focused on the basics of teaching required subjects and federal requirements for student meals rather than being able to creatively expand their Farm to School curriculum or spend time sourcing, purchasing, and serving local foods that students will enjoy. All this means that local purchasing is at risk of decreasing.
“Farm to School” (FTS) is a spectrum of activities connecting the classroom, cafeteria, and community. The Vermont Farm to School Network (VT FSN) is working toward the goal of schools procuring 50% of their food from local or regional sources, and 75% school participation in integrated food system education by 2025. In 2019, the Vermont Legislature adopted a goal of 25% local purchasing in schools by 2023.
Approximately 250 public schools in Vermont serve meals to more than 50,000 Vermont pre-K to Grade 12 students, following the USDA Child Nutrition Program guidelines. The program costs $50.3 million each year, and $15.5 million of that money is spent on food. Of these students, 41% qualify for free or reduced-priced meals as part of the safety net for low-income families.1 A 2016 UVM study found that in 2013-14, Vermont schools spent $915,000 on local foods, or 5.6% of all food dollars spent. This in turn generated $1.4 million in the Vermont economy, including $374,000 related to the farm and food processing sectors.
If Vermont schools doubled their 2013-14 local food spending (from 5.6% to 11.2%) the total annual economic impact would be $2.1 million.
Despite progress, schools continue to face significant obstacles to increasing their local food purchasing, including cost and staffing constraints, reliable supply, and delivery and storage considerations. In the majority of schools, the meal program budget is separate from the school educational budget, and must operate sustainably on its own as a revenue generating program rather than a nutritional and learning program.
Much progress has been made in understanding how certain local products get into schools, the importance of values-based buying, and the complexities of the aggregation and distribution system. However, buying Vermont foods is not mandatory for schools. Success depends on the values of the school community, which builds the demand, and the ease of sourcing, properly procuring, and using local foods.