Arkansas has a solid farm to school presence. In 2021, 293 schools and institutions serving children in the state reported spending $11.5 million (7.8% of their food budget) on local foods (excluding milk, which is typically locally sourced). While this is a great start, there are many opportunities to grow.
Federal initiatives can complement and accelerate efforts already underway in Arkansas to promote more local food purchases by state supported institutions. We need to open more market channels, including schools, for Arkansas’ producers.
This can be done in a win-win-win manner, especially through investments that help our small and mid-sized farms compete with out-of-state corporate agriculture. This would truly strengthen Arkansas’ #1 industry: agriculture. And it will work to rebuild rural prosperity in our 75 counties. Students win with better nutrition, farmers win with more and more stable markets and communities win with stronger local economies.
Supported by the National Farm to School Network, we recently coordinated a trip to D.C. to visit with Senator John Boozman, as well as a site visit to our farm in Conway with the Senator’s staff. Our mission was to discuss the vital importance of farm to school and this trifecta of winning with schools, farmers and communities.
As the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, Sen. Boozman plays a crucial role in shaping the future of Farm to School in the context of the 2023 Farm Bill. Congress is now hammering out this massive piece of legislation that lays out the U.S. government’s policy framework for nutrition and agriculture. It is revised only every five years, so having a voice in this process is important.
In D.C., we made the point that schools are the largest “restaurant chain” in Arkansas and across our country, and therefore provide an excellent market for farmers.
We also emphasized that infrastructure is lacking for direct supply of local food to school food service programs, and farm to school programs can play a role with infrastructure both in schools and on farms. We also spoke with the Senator about risk management and the various points in local supply chains where risk plays a role in inhibiting more local food being served to kids.
We heard Sen. Boozman express his concern about the decline in many rural communities across our nation, and we believe investments in farm to school can help revitalize these areas with local markets and local job creation. Opportunities for the Senator to increase this Farm Bill’s direct return on investment for Arkansas’ producers include the Local Farms and Food Act (S. 1205), Strengthening Local Processing Act (SLPA) (S. 354), and Whole Farm Revenue Protection Improvement Act (S. 2598).
Upon return from D.C., we hosted farm to school leaders in our state, the Senator’s in-state staff, and 13 students from Chicot Elementary School, at Healthy Flavors AR. The event allowed us to witness farm to school in action, with enthusiastic students learning about food and agriculture in front of these farm to school leaders. And we shared our experiences and insights on the importance of expanding farm to school opportunities in Arkansas.
Unfortunately, our society has allowed kids to become separated from the knowledge and experience of where food comes from, how growing food impacts the environment we all share, how food gets prepared before we consume it, and how real, nutrient dense food builds and heals our bodies. Just bringing these kids to a squash patch sparked so many questions from the kids.
I’m hopeful that the growth of farm to school programs in Arkansas and across the country will empower more children to nourish their bodies and minds through real, locally grown food. Maybe it will motivate one of the students to become a child nutrition expert and serve better meals in schools. Could yet another find the path to being a farmer themselves one day? Maybe one will go on to work on agricultural policy, and realize that by restoring our community roots, we build a stronger and more stable society for all.
We appreciate the Senator’s support for strong family farms in Arkansas and look forward to working with Sen. Boozman to increase the economic impact of healthy farms and farmers in Arkansas.
Editor’s note: Dan Spatz owns Healthy Flavors Arkansas, a Conway-based family farm focused on increasing availability of locally grown vegetables to kids in schools across Arkansas. The opinions expressed are those of the author.