Connecting kids back to the land and the food they eat.

That's one of many benefits to be gleaned from a $97,600 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant received by the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness (FFI).

This week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the FFI grant as one of 71 projects spanning 42 states and the District of Columbia that support the USDA's efforts to connect school cafeterias with local farmers and ranchers through its Farm to School Program. Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness, working with Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, received the only grant in the state of Iowa.


Emily Neal of Decorah, school outreach coordinator for FFI, said, "Food and Fitness is thrilled and honored to have received USDA funding to support Farm to School ... Farm to School enlivens the school environment with energy and enthusiasm, as students learn about food and farms, they learn about their community, about their health and about the environment.

"We are thankful to the four committed school districts, including Decorah, Turkey Valley, Postville and Allamakee, who, through their partnerships with FFA and their willingness to step out and be leaders in this movement, have made this funding possible."

Timing perfect

Teresa Wiemerslage, ISU Extension regional program coordinator and project director for the grant, added, " The timing of this grant is perfect. The USDA Farm to School funds will support a strong collaboration and will be readily leveraged with public and private funds. With technical assistance funds from a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant (RBEG) grant, a food aggregation hub has been launched to be able to distribute larger quantities of food needed by schools, but we need short-term funds to assist with logistics and delivery costs.

"Two new processing kitchens in the region are poised to meet the need for a minimally-processed for fresh-cut products, but they need funds for product development and testing."

Wiemerslage said while FFI is well-known for its local food system work, "We are at a tipping point. We will either make significant progress through a food hub and expanded production, or our local Farm to School work will stall at current levels. We will either expand food processing and storage, or we will not increase local food served in schools and other institutions. We must have a more sophisticated, highly developed food system in order to both meet that demand and to assure that local foods are available at a fair and affordable price for schools.

Continued cooperation

In an interview with Decorah Newspapers, Kevin Concannon, the under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services in Washington, D.C., commended FFI for its collaboration.

"This continues the cooperation with the FFI and we know that up to 4,000 students in Northeast Iowa are going to benefit from Farm to School efforts that will be further enhanced by this grant," said Concannon.

Concannon said he is encouraged by a recent Farm to School census and said Iowa is somewhat "ahead of the curve."

"Thirty-one percent of Iowa schools have indicated they have programs and another 15 percent indicated they are working on creating one. Nationwide, most states are in the 23 - 24 percent range," said Concannon.

The census showed that in school year 2011-2012, school districts purchased and served over $350 million in local food, with more than half of participating schools planning to purchase more local foods in the future.

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A growing movement

Concannon said the initiative is part of a growing movement, "that local produce is invariably fresher, and may even be less expensive when you consider lower transportation costs."

Of the USDA Farm to School initiative, Concannon said the aim is two-fold.

"First, we are encouraging students to eat healthier food in the form of fruits and vegetables. Second, we're trying to put those dollars back in to local growers. It's a double win," said Concannon.

About FFI

The FFI and its partners will build on the momentum of five years of successful farm-to-school programs in a six‐county region.

With this project, FFI aims to meet two goals: collaborate with farmers and a new food hub poised to scale‐up production and investment in aggregation infrastructure to meet school needs; and, work with the four rural school districts with demonstrated readiness to expand their Farm to School programming and to increase their local food purchases by 200 percent.

FFI will work with each partnering district to develop a school wellness action plan, which includes a plan of work for Farm to School. It will also provide an AmeriCorps service member to visit each school several times a week to assist with food prep, taste tests, technical assistance, farm-to-school marketing and student visits to farms. The schools will serve as models to the larger region, and the lessons learned by the intervention schools will be easily translated to others.

An investment

"In rural and urban communities across the country, Farm to School is teaching students where food comes from and how it gets to their plate, and encouraging them to make healthier food choices in the cafeteria and at home. Farm to School programs are an investment in the health of our nation's children and in the vibrancy of rural economies," said Vilsack.

Critical need

These projects highlight the critical need for a new Food, Farm and Jobs Bill now more than ever, said Vilsack.

Producers need renewed and expanded access to Farm Bill programs to fuel the growing demand for local food in new markets, including school meals programs, and to increase economic opportunities for America's farmers and ranchers.

USDA Farm to School grants help schools respond to the growing demand for locally sourced foods and increase market opportunities for producers and food businesses, including food processors, manufacturers, and distributors. Grants will also be used to support agriculture and nutrition education efforts such as school gardens, field trips to local farms, and cooking classes.

For a complete list of FY14 Farm to School grant recipients, visit:

About Farm to School

The USDA's Farm to School program is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which authorized USDA to provide grants and technical assistance to help schools gain better access to local foods. It is also a core element of the USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" Initiative, which coordinates the department's work on local food systems.