When most people think of children eating local foods, the images that come to mind are of kids getting their hands dirty in the garden or a family strolling through a farmers market on the weekend. What most people don’t picture is the lunch line at a school cafeteria. But what if we could change that? Many children eat one or more meals a day at schools and childcare centers. What if we could make this a place where they regularly consume fresh, healthy, local food? 

Recently, IFU received $325,000 in funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to embark on a new project linking Early Care and Education (ECE) sites to local food.  This project is an exciting opportunity for IFU to create and strengthen bonds with our partners on the statewide Farm to ECE Coalition, including the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children, Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Local Foods program. The overarching goal: to create positive changes in our food system that support small producers, create better access and distribution of local food, and ultimately provide healthier meals for all children in Iowa, especially for vulnerable or disadvantaged populations. 

This is slow, deliberate work, but is crucial for creating the type of broad changes we’d like to see in Iowa’s food systems. IFU brings to the table our strong connections with the farm community and experience with advocacy and policy development. Our involvement in this project is twofold: we will be working to find solutions to procurement challenges, making local foods more available, and we will create a set of policy recommendations that will make serving local foods more attractive and feasible. Over a two-year period, IFU will research programs and policies that are already in place, both in Iowa and other states, and conduct surveys and focus groups to identify needs and solutions. These findings will be used to create a set of policy recommendations that will help us advocate for laws that will support the systematic changes that will help Iowa’s children and farmers thrive.

Many small programs already exist, such as school garden programs, but in order to see real change, action is needed on a larger scale. Instead of relying on individual teachers, caregivers, or schools to champion their own programs, we will work toward creating a better system to allow and encourage all ECE sites to integrate local foods into their regular food plan. One part of this is that systems need to be created so that anyone can easily access local foods. This means improving infrastructure to allow farmers to sell their produce to food hubs and co-ops who can then connect buyers to the produce they want in the quantities they need. It’s one thing for an in-home daycare provider to procure food for 3-4 children, and an entirely different matter for a school system to procure even occasional local foods to feature when they are serving hundreds of children. The other half of the equation is creating policies that encourage schools to integrate local foods into their menu. One example of a successful policy  addressing this problem is Michigan’s incentive pilot program that provides up to ten cents per meal in matching funds for schools to serve Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and dry beans. Now in it’s third year, the program is seeing positive results including decreased food waste and increased fruit and vegetable consumption. It’s a win-win-win: kids have access to more healthy food, schools can stretch their budgets farther, and farmers have more options for selling their produce. 

Creating an environment where including local foods in school lunches is both easy and incentivized is the first step in making eating locally a normal, familiar practice both at school and at home. This can lead to real, broad changes in the way Iowa’s children and families eat.