OLYMPIA — Washington State Department of Agriculture is offering new grants to help expand the state's farm-to-school programs.
The $5 million grant pool, called the Farm to School Purchasing Grants program, was approved by the state Legislature as part of the 2021 to 2023 state budget. The grants will be available to schools, child care centers and summer meal program operators in ranges of $1,000 to $300,000 depending on how many students are served annually and other factors.
The schools can use the money to buy more food from in-state farms.
The new funding, advocates say, will help increase the number of schools and similar institutions that are able to buy food locally — a victory for Washington state farms.
"The Farm to School Purchasing Grants not only support farm to school efforts, but also local farms of different sizes, production scales, and crop types from around the state," WSDA said in a statement Monday. "One goal of the grant program is to strengthen Washington’s food at the regional level, while helping to ensure that more locally produced food is consumed by the people of Washington state."
Farm-to-school advocates say schools are a valuable market for farmers in several ways.
First, advocates say that being part of a farm-to-school network gives farmers the opportunity to educate students about their food.
One farmer the Capital Press talked to said being part of the farm-to-school pipeline also feels like a "morally right thing to do" to make sure local students have access to fresh, healthful produce.
For some farmers, schools provide an excellent secondary market for produce that doesn't meet the size specifications of grocery stores.
"There are some niche areas in farm-to-school that work for producers, like certain crops have sizes that are not as valued by restaurant or grocery buyers but are a good fit for schools — so things like smaller-scale apples and pears that fit nicely into a kid's hand," said Melina Barker, director of Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network.
Other farmers say they enjoy growing foods intentionally tailored for students' smaller hands and appetites, such as miniature peppers and cherry tomatoes.
Because more Washington schools will likely soon be creating farm-to-school programs, officials encourage farmers interested in selling to schools to get ready.
WSDA says "schools and institutions can be a great market for farms," and encourages farmers who need technical assistance to contact the agency's Farm to School Program at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The deadline for schools to apply for grant funding is Dec. 20, 2021, so advocates encourage farmers who want their local schools to apply to reach out to school administrators before that date.