Farm-To-School Programs Minimize Food Waste And Maximize Health

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed in 2010, formally establishing the United States Department of Agriculture's Farm to School Program, which strives to improve access to local foods in American schools. Five years later, the USDA has released its second "census" of farm-to-school programs. The previous census was conducted in 2013.

Click here for the 10 Best School Lunches in America slideshow.

As part of an effort to document the growing number of farm-to-school programs, the USDA sent a questionnaire to schools around the country asking for information on their school lunch programs. This year's results demonstrate that at least 42,000 schools spent almost $600 million on local food during the 2013-2014 school year. That's nearly 50 percent more than what was reported in the 2013 census. "There's a universal interest in this, and that's why we've seen dramatic increases in sales, and why we think there's still a lot of potential upside to this," Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, told NPR.

Why, then, aren't more schools adapting to the locavore trend? Katherine Ralston, an agricultural economist at USDA, told NPR that for many schools, the barriers to going local are very subtle. The issue is neither cost, nor supply, but rather getting produce that meets requirements. For example, a school planning to serve baby carrots may be able to source regular carrots locally, but they may lack the resources to cut the larger carrots into manageable sizes for kids.

Beyond such technical issues, schools share the same apprehensions that many Americans face when deciding to buy local. They worry that switching to local products may prove to be a logistical nightmare. Just the idea of sacrificing key items, like apples and bananas, which may not be available locally or year-round, can pose a major challenge. Many children are picky as it is, and parents and administrators fear that limiting their options will exacerbate the issue.

Despite this trepidation, the 2015 census shows that schools that switched to locally sourced lunches have seen an array of benefits. Seventy-five percent of respondents that engage in farm-to-school activities reported that more kids were choosing school meals, and with this increased consumption, the schools saw less food waste. They also experienced greater support from parents and the community, as well as lower food costs from buying local. While local food still only makes up about 20 percent of the average school meal, it's important to remember that the farm-to-school lunch program is in its preliminary stages. Public health advocates hope that this upward trend of local lunches will continue, and with it, a downward trend in the American obesity epidemic.

The accompanying slideshow is provided by fellow Daily Meal special contributor Erik Shander.