One of the highlights this week was a report on the Farm to School program. It is always a delight to have children in the State House and this was no exception.
Our morning hearing on Farm to School Awareness Day included witnesses from a number of areas including the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and the Department of Health. School personnel, including a superintendent and two school nutrition directors, weighed in on the importance of the Farm to School program. Teachers and school children from the Bristol and Northfield schools shared with us what an impact Farm to School had on them. They spoke of learning to try new, healthier foods that helped to change their eating habits for the better. Instead of junk food for a snack, one boy spoke of eating a sweet potato, which surprised his mother!
We passed the legislation creating the Rozo McLaughlin Farm to School Grant Program in 2006 with the first round of grants going out in 2007. Rozo (Rosemary) McLaughlin was a fellow legislator and friend from South Royalton who died much too early of an aggressive form of cancer just before the election in 2006. Rozo was a strong proponent of education and opportunity for children. She, along with Rep. Mitzi Johnson, now Chair of House Appropriations, shepherded the original idea for the bill through the legislative process.
It is well-known that proper nutrition is critical for children to be successful. Making sure that children are well-nourished is an important and relatively inexpensive investment in our future that has many secondary benefits.
According to the literature provided by Hunger Free Vermont, children who are food insecure are more likely to have poor quality diets and nutrient deficiencies; chronic illnesses and increased hospital visits; cognitive, physical, and emotional delays; lack of school readiness; increased aggression, depression, and hyperactive behavior; diminished academic achievement; and low wage earning capacity as adults, which just perpetuates the cycle of food insecurity and poverty. The definition of food insecurity is "the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food."
I am always perplexed and dismayed when I hear that politicians on the federal level want to cut child nutrition programs. Fortunately, members of our federal delegation understand well the importance of good childhood nutrition and are strong supporters of those programs. The Farm to School Program offers competitive planning and implementation grants to Vermont schools to create a program of their choice with a goal of including more local foods in classrooms, school cafeterias, and communities. The marvelous aspect of Farm to School is that besides improving our children's diets by increasing their consumption of healthy, local food there are other benefits as well. During the 2011-12 school year, school districts spent $1.38 million on local products such as vegetables, fruit, eggs, beef, poultry, milk, cheese, yogurt, cider, and maple syrup, helping our farmers and, in turn, the State economy. As a result of sourcing products more locally, our carbon footprint is reduced. Since its inception, Farm to School has helped more than 120 Vermont schools representing more than 30,000 students with $816,000 in grant money.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that the original appropriation in 2007 was $140,000 and due to budget constraints that number has decreased steadily ever since. In FY2015, it was down to $56,000 and the plan for FY2017 is to level fund the program.
Farm to School is one of those synergistic programs that has ever increasing benefits. Hunger Free Vermont stresses that adding fresh, local foods and making school lunch programs more accessible to all students improves school meal quality and student participation. Several years ago, we appropriated money so that the "reduced" lunch category could be eliminated. As a result, with the stigma removed, more students take advantage of school meals and there is more money for purchasing and processing local food. Strengthening school meal programs assures that no student goes hungry, which improves the lives of food insecure students as discussed above. Children get better nutrition and develop a taste for healthier foods – the goal is for children to get four to five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, which creates a future market for our local farmers and improves Vermont's economy. It's a win, win, win, win!
At this time of concern about childhood obesity and all of the resulting health problems associated with it, better nutrition will help interrupt that cycle and potentially end, or at least curtail, eating habits that contribute to future health problems and potentially reduce the health care costs that come with them.
As we assess programs through a Results-Based Accountability lens, this is one of the very successful programs that has paid great dividends and is somewhat easily measured. As a result of all of the positive results of Farm to School, my hope would be to increase the amount of funding for the program or find other funding sources for it.
The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC) passed a bill this week that calls for a Pollinator Protection Committee to develop a Pollinator Protection Plan for the State of Vermont. HAFPC worked hard to make sure the committee is diverse in its membership and balanced in its experience and perspective. The bill was voted out of committee unanimously and the expectation is that it will pass on the Floor of the House this coming week.