Nelsy Domínguez and Pam Roy

Thanks to the efforts of teachers, school nutrition professionals, farmers, agriculture professionals, parents, students and nonprofit advocates, Farm to School programs throughout the nation are booming. Based on recently released national data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Farm to School activities have grown from a handful of schools in the late 1990s to 23.6 million students nationwide. A total of 42,587 schools across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., participate in farm-to-school activities such as serving local food in the cafeteria, holding taste tests, planting and caring for school gardens and taking students on field trips to farms and orchards.

For more than a decade, New Mexico organizations and agencies have made a concerted effort to develop the New Mexico Grown Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for School Meals initiative to create opportunities for farmers to diversify their markets. For schools, this means being able to buy locally while meeting federal school-meal rules and enhancing the diets of schoolchildren while promoting healthy lifestyles and academic achievement.

Since 2007, the New Mexico Legislature has appropriated funding for the New Mexico Grown Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for School Meals program, now called NM Grown. Since then, interest in the program has increased. During the 2016 New Mexico Legislative Session, New Mexico Grown was appropriated $250,000—a reduction from $364,300 the previous year. The funds, administered by the Public Education Department, are made accessible to school food authorities (SFAs) toward the purchase of fresh local produce. The program was utilized by many of the 218 SFAs and served 364,902 students in the 2015/2016 school year. In addition, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) separately administers $85,000 in support of purchasing local produce designated for a set of Albuquerque Public Schools. Between both allocations, New Mexico schools will have close to $335,000 to spend on New Mexico-grown fresh fruits and vegetables for school meals during the 2016/2017 school year.

Farm to Table, in partnership with the NMDA, New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service, New Mexico School Nutrition Association, New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council and others look to address many of the operational challenges inherent in developing a complex initiative involving many partners. Some of the most perplexing challenges relate to the need to invest in New Mexico’s small- to mid-scale farmers, the procurement process for New Mexico Grown foods and their distribution to schools.

To ensure that the New Mexico Grown program is a win-win for farmers and schoolchildren, nearly 50 participants joined Farm to Table and the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council for a one-day strategic session aimed at developing the program in the coming years. Farmers, educators, school food-service administrators, agriculture agents, nonprofit advocates and public officials discussed ways to coordinate and align efforts. Together, they produced a vision, developed actionable strategies and mobilized committees to carry out and engage others in support for localizing school-food procurement.

Investing in asset-based, community economic development is a way to strengthen and diversify regional economic activity—activity that is traditionally cultural—so that communities can achieve self-determined wellness and improve their relationship with fresh, high-quality food, especially those who are not usually able to experience such food daily.

To learn more, contact pam@farmtotablenm.org or nelsy@farmtotablenm.org. View the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census at https://farmtoschoolcensus.fns.usda.gov/ and visit National Farm to School Network at http://www.farmtoschool.org/news-and-articles/census-says-farm-to-school-is-booming

Nelsy Domínguez is deputy director/COO, and Pam Roy is executive director, Farm to Table.

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