By STEVE BROWN
During the coming school year, USDA will conduct a nationwide census of farm-to-school programs, asking schools about their purchases of local produce, meat and dairy products.
Several states have specific programs to forge those connections, with the goals of improving childhood nutrition and supporting farmers and ranchers.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture's Farm-to-School programs were eliminated in 2011 due to legislative budget reductions, but some activity has been maintained through federal grants.
Tricia Kovacs, education and outreach specialist at WSDA, helps schools with their local food procurement.
"There's a lot available here in Washington, and we're getting so much interest," she said. "Of the schools and farmers we've dealt with, 100 percent said they would do it again."
Food directors have said they appreciate the high-quality food, the good community relations and supporting their community. Farmers said they enjoy the positive impact they can have on children's health and the public awareness of food and farming.
In taste tests, students have said they enjoy carrots "with the green tops still on them" as well as things they haven't tried before, such as kiwi berries, parsnips and different colors of cherry tomatoes.
A 2009-10 USDA survey, asking only about produce, found 20 percent of school districts nationwide purchased local produce for school meals. About 12 percent were developing a local food program, and 65 percent had no farm-to-school programs available to them.
The survey asked 416 food service directors how much they spent and what they bought.
Local purchases accounted for 5 to 12 percent of total food costs, the food directors reported.
The top 10 items they bought, listed by dollar value are apples, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, oranges, cucumbers, peppers, pears, watermelon and peaches.
According to the Washington School Nutrition Association, school meal programs are already taking steps to meet new USDA regulations projected to be in place by 2013:
* Incorporating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
* Serving more whole grains and dried beans and peas.
* Offering low-fat dairy products.
* Reducing the sodium in school meals by incorporating more herbs and spices in cooking and evaluating the sodium in purchased products.
Nutrition programs have partnered with local farmers to bring Washington-grown in food into school cafeterias, including an annual "Taste Washington Day."
The survey also the 416 food service directors how they define "local."
For 29 percent of respondents in the U.S. survey, local meant produced within the state. For 19 percent, produce was locally grown if produced within the same city or country.
For another 19 percent, local meant the food was produced within 50 miles, and for 17 percent, local meant it produced within the region.
For a few respondents, produce was locally grown if produced within a day's drive, 100 miles or 200 miles.