Innovative Approaches to the Farm-to-School Movement? Look No Farther Than Youth.

05/10/2016 12:39 pm ET Updated May 11, 2017

Originality and leadership are what kids bring to the table when they're genuinely excited about -- and empowered around where their food comes from.

By Alexis Glick and Jean Ragalie-Carr, RDN

The well-entrenched farm-to-table movement is familiar to most health-conscious Americans. But the farm to school movement is perhaps less so. Farm to school describes the practice through which more and more U.S. school districts are purchasing and serving regionally grown and raised food from local farms, including dairy, vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meats, as part of school meals.

In addition, these school districts often provide experiential learning opportunities around environmental stewardship, recycling, food-waste reduction, farm experiences, garden-based learning, food insecurity/hunger, culinary innovations based on farm-fresh ingredients, and more.

Farm to school is serious business. School districts across the country invested more than half a billion dollars (nearly $600 million) in local foods in the 2013-2014 school year, an increase of $212 million (or 55 percent) over two years earlier.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm to School Census, more than 42,000 schools nationwide have farm to school programs, which operate in conjunction with the National School Lunch Program and other school meal programs. Benefits of farm to school include more students choosing school meals, lower costs from buying locally grown food, increasing support from parents and the community, and less wasted food and resources.

At GENYOUth -- whose signature program the nationwide in-school nutrition-and-physical activity initiative Fuel Up to Play 60 founded by the National Dairy Council and the NFL - we know that a big part of getting kids eating healthier is getting them excited about where their food comes from. And the farm to school movement is doing just that.

Through the exciting work of students in the 73,000 schools Fuel Up to Play 60 serves -- as well as the kids competing in our social-entrepreneurship program AdVenture Capital -- we see kids embracing farm to school in a big way.

Kids are leading efforts to organize visits to local farms, and holding cooking classes with professional local chefs. They're helping to revamp cafeteria designs with inspirational local-farm-themed murals and artwork. They're constructing chicken coops and developing original egg recipes and food-handling procedures suited to school and home use.

With the funds they get from Fuel Up to Play 60 and AdVenture Caiptal, students are able to purchase everything from supplies to start and maintain school gardens to fresh yogurt and cheese-making equipment. The most creative among them are developing sustainability solutions, like rain-barrel irrigation in drought regions, and putting in place natural composting routines for less-than-ideal garden soil on school premises.

These student projects are demonstrating again and again how youthful ideas can shape everything from school food-purchasing policies and "agriculture in the curriculum" to deep connections and respect for where food comes from. As they always have in American life, youth - when given the chance - are leading and innovating.

Needless to say, corporate and business supporters are key players in advancing farm to school efforts. State and regional dairy councils are providing Funds for Fuel Up to Play 60 to help thousands of schools launch and expand farm to school initiatives. Partners including technology and innovation giant SAP, The Dannon Institute and Domino's are among the companies supporting GENYOUth's AdVenture Capital program. And longtime supporters like Jamba Juice and others play an enormous, ongoing role.

We urge other businesses to get on board and support everyday youth-led school and community efforts to improve access to healthful, local foods. Not only is it "the right thing to do," the students we empower are also helping strengthen regional food economies, and spreading community consciousness of the value of real foods. In the process, they're gaining confidence and leadership skills, and experiencing the satisfaction that they are improving their health, their lives, their schools, and their communities.

And we encourage you to download a complimentary copy of GENYOUth's recently published Thought-Leadership Brief, "Farm to School: Innovative Approaches from the Youth Perspective," sponsored by te National Dairy Council, here:
http://www.genyouthnow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/GY-InBrief_Issue1_May-2016.pdf

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Alexis Glick is CEO of GENYOUth. Jean Ragalie-Carr is President of National Dairy Council.