Farm-to-school grants need proof on return - The Packer

Farm-to-school grants need proof on return

11/16/2012 09:48:00 AM
Tom Karst

Tom Karst, National EditorTom Karst, National EditorThe simple and faith-filled notion of local food is even more endearing, and potentially more enduring, than the myth of the Great Pumpkin.

We love our local foods, so much so that we insist that hard-to-find “local” growers gear up to grow ever-expanding supplies of food for our schools.

In the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nov. 14 news release trumpeting the first farm-to-school grants of $4.5 million for 68 projects, the agency enumerated the benefits of farm to school with nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.

“When schools buy food from nearby producers, their purchasing power helps create local jobs and economic benefits, particularly in rural agricultural communities,” Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said in the release.

And Linus also believes the Great Pumpkin will fly through the air and bring toys to all the children of the world.

“He’ll come here because I have the most sincere pumpkin patch and he respects sincerity,” Linus said in the iconic 1966 animated Peanuts feature “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.”

If you recall the vintage Baby Boomer touchstone, you will remember Sally Brown spent the night with Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin’s appearance and missed out on trick or treating. She was not pleased.

Before U.S. taxpayers invest millions more in the farm to school grants, it would be great to have a little more proof about the return on investment for those dollars.

If we invest those scarce dollars in the farm to school program, what other funding opportunity will the industry miss?

More objective analysis is needed to determine if the assumptions in the farm to school paradigm are sustainable.

Will it really work to recruit growers to produce local food for schools? And how will funds be used to encourage private job growth rather than government bureaucracy?

For example, the news release said some farm to school grants went to fund 25 programs that will create jobs by hiring farm to school coordinators, with 43 projects supporting and maintaining existing staff.

Using federal dollars to fund staff positions at school districts concerns me.

Let private business decide if the cost of procuring “local produce” is viable.

Don’t create government staff positions and assign those hired responsibility for local food procurement with no sure bet of benefit for the school or to the kids. In this cash-strapped era, that kind of inertia toward more bureaucracy is a luxury the U.S. can’t afford.

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Patty Cantrell    
Michigan  |  November, 19, 2012 at 12:48 PM

Major Market Signal: The growth of farm to school programs is a tremendous market signal – up to nearly 13,000 schools in 50 states from a handful of schools 10 years ago. It’s a bottom-up phenomenon: Everyday Moms, Dads, school staff, farmers, local government and more coming together to address some real public health and local economy problems through public expenditures on school food. The USDA is responding with resources, as it should, particularly because of significant business innovation and development this movement is fueling (e.g. regional food hubs). The coordination piece is one of the most pressing because of huge gaps in local food distribution and other infrastructure that our highly globalized system has left behind. Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions LLC

John Gillette    
Vermont  |  November, 28, 2012 at 06:49 PM

I agree with the tenants of Mr. Karst argument that we need to be examining the viability of any government program to assure citizens that their taxes are being wisely spent. I've seen this happen in Vermont where, as Ms. Cantrell mentioned above, there are new food hubs being built and thriving (witness the towns of Hardwick & Rutland). There are still those distribution gaps and local purchasing streams that need to be put in place and the Farm to School program is one avenue of highlighting this gap and then addressing it. There is plenty of room for private industry to grow in this area and meet the demands where institutions start investing in local industry to meet their needs whether it's with food or any other goods that can be sustainably produced and are accountable to those communities. The small amount of funds put into this, I think, will show a huge return in its investment when the support of new mid-sized businesses that are helping strengthen local systems are factored in.

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