THE BLOG
11/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Farm-To-School Programs: Growing a Healthier America

Food needs a piece of that seven billion dollar pie. For fortunate Americans, food is as much a source of entertainment as it is nourishment. Yet despite the lore of culinary shows and specialty markets, there remains a deep, gastronomical divide: some demographics have trouble finding or affording basic produce, let alone local maple syrup to make candied yams from the holiday issue of Cook's Illustrated. Even kids with access to sufficient nutrition are often starved for information about what their food is and where it comes from. For the sake of a healthier, more prosperous and integrated America, this needs to change.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Mixed-race or white high-poverty areas and all African American areas (regardless of income) were less likely than predominantly white higher-income communities to have access to foods that enable individuals to make healthy choices." This is problematic for all Americans--even those who will enjoy a cornucopia at Thanksgiving. As large portions of our fellow citizens grow up on a diet of fast or processed foods and end up diabetic, obese or heart diseased, we can all expect to absorb rising medical costs. There is nothing sustainable about a health care plan that doesn't look out for the long-term well being of America's kids.

But providing nutritious food is just one side of the equation. Even children who do get enough calories in the cafeteria are often unaware of what they're ingesting, or are making the wrong food choices. Wholesome eating requires more than the requisite apple here and there--it is a matter of knowledge and good citizenry. It is a vital part of the economic equation in terms of national health and sustainable food production. The industrialized farming methods that make Lunchables and Snack Packs appear from the refrigerator firmament are not feasible in the long term and new attitudes towards farming and eating should be taught to American citizens as early as possible.

Farm-to-school programs that have been created by individuals and educators across the country have taken this matter into their own hands, providing kids with fresh food and knowledge. Programs like the Edible Schoolyard, Farm to School and Growing Minds offer the essential ingredients for America's healthy future by bringing together neighboring farms and cafeterias and offering kids tutorials on how to grow, harvest and prepare their own food.

America needs food and education programs that are going to focus both on the communities with sufficient access to healthy produce and those without. Children who have a seemingly limitless stash of food in their cafeterias and home pantries should be taught the cycle of growing, harvesting, distributing and cooking to greater appreciate how much effort and energy is required to turn an apple seed into an apple pie. If they develop an understanding of how precious food is, children will likely be more mindful in their eating decisions.

Farm-to-school programs in communities where kids have little access to fresh produce will not only teach children the growing, harvesting and distributing process, they will also provide students with much needed nutrition from fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and honey. There are two organizations worth noting in this category: the first, Growing Power, Inc., is an urban farm center that teaches adults and children in Milwaukee how to grow and procure fresh produce. The organization's founder, Will Allen, was recently awarded a MacArthur fellowship for his efforts. According to Allen, "If we want healthy, local food, the new generation of farmers are not going to come from rural communities. They're not going to come from traditional farm families because those things don't exist in our system anymore. These new farmers are going to come from folks that live in the city. I don't build gardens with fences ... you have to engage the community."

Another program worth tracking is Houston-based Recipe for Success, (Web site has been under construction) which promotes gardening, farming and food preparation in the classroom. Recipe for Success works with several schools in underprivileged districts, giving young students who might otherwise have lacked access to fresh produce both good food and the lifelong skill of how to prepare it.

Beyond the obvious health benefits, fostering local economies and small or medium sized farmers will help regenerate the American economy. Although fulfilling orders and proper distribution is still a challenge for many small-scale farmers, the support they would get if more school programs were involved could offer them a platform to become more efficient and viable as producers and distributors.

Unfortunately there are still not enough farm-to-school programs in America. Most that exist struggle financially and have to choose between healthy food and classroom needs. Here's where a slice of Bush's last dessert would help. Our next president elect should have a look at the model programs, organizations, farms and schools that are currently making proper food education possible. For the sake of our health, our kitchens and our future economy, he should make funding them a priority.