Farm to school 101: Overview and resources

Kaleyby Kaley Hohenshell, Program Assistant

Click here to see the Farm to School Toolkit Pilot developed by Cass County Farm to School Coalition and ISU Extension and Outreach Community Food Systems Program.

What is farm to school?

Farm to school is “any program that connects schools and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers” (Iowa Department of Education, 2017).

Farm to school’s three core initiatives:

  • Procurement: Schools purchase, promote, and serve local foods in cafeterias, as a snack or taste-test
  • Education: Students participate in education activities related to agriculture, food, health or nutrition
  • School gardens: Students engage in hands-on learning through gardening

(National Farm to School Network, 2017)

Why do schools participate in farm to school?

  • Currently, 32 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are overweight and 17 percent are obese (Berk, 2012).
  • A study of 1,000 U.S. children found that overweight preschoolers were five times more likely to remain overweight by the time they reached 12 than their healthy-weight peers.
  • Overweight children are at a higher risk for mental and physical health, social and academic challenges throughout their lifetimes compared to their healthy-weight peers.

Interventions that focus on revised eating patterns and daily exercise are the most effective. Programs that are based on diet and lifestyle can provide long-lasting weight reduction among overweight children and adolescents. Children ingest one-third of their daily caloric intake at school; schools have the opportunity to help reduce obesity by serving healthier meals and having students engage in regular physical activities (Berk, 2012).

How do schools participate in farm to school?

Farm to school efforts can be incorporated in a wide variety of ways, including procurement, school curriculum, and additional activities that engage the whole community.

Examples of farm to school implementation:

  • School meal programs incorporating school garden produce for education programs and test tasting
  • Community members contributing towards the development or continuance of a farm to school program and school garden maintenance
  • University extension staff creating connections with farmers and food service providers, allowing for information sharing about school procurement and farming
  • Schools collaborating on USDA Farm to School grant project

If a new farm to school initiative is beginning, university extension staff are equipped to help facilitate the startup by communicating information, holding educational and informational public meetings or classes to help schools find local sources of food.

The USDA Farm to School Planning Toolkit shares best practices for schools regarding startup and sustenance of farm to school programs.


Procurement is the buying of goods and services. In relation to farm to school, procurement is the specific purchasing of local foods. “The procurement of local foods involves identifying food producers, selecting a vendor, and conclusively purchasing and providing food” (Purdue Extension, 2016).

Schools have two main options when it comes to food service management. They can use in-house school-based methods, or they can outsource and use contract service providers to buy local foods. There are various types of procurement methods that include thresholds for purchasing agreements, bid processes, and methods of buying direct from farmer via contract agreements. The USDA details common practices and language around procurement:

  • Informal procurement: ex. direct purchases between buyers and producers (typically small orders)
  • Formal procurement: ex. competitive sealed bidding, competitive proposals (typically mid-large orders)
  • Micro-purchases/specialty: ex. purchases less than $3,000 for specialty events

Farm to school programs typically need to seek creative ways of buying local foods. This may include creating contracts with producer co-ops and food hubs, distributors, food processors, and others.

Teresa Weimerslage, food systems coordinator for ISU Extension and Outreach, said that the current process for food procurement is a barrier to farmers and institutions for local purchases. Another barrier is lack of infrastructure to prepare meals from scratch. With support, she said, schools are still a viable market for local foods.

Nutrition education

Farm to school programs can provide many facets of nutrition education for not only students, but also families and community members through hands-on learning activities: school gardens, field trips to local farms, and cooking classes.

Examples of incorporating farm to school into the classroom:

  • A is for Apple Initiative
    • Orchards and schools work together with the USDA to procure apples for school children. Educational materials are given to each school to help implement the apples into classroom activities.
  • A Garden is the Way to Grow
    • This two-year Initiative offers schools $400 to purchase composting supplies along with educational materials to teach lessons on science, math and reading in their gardens.

FoodCorps Iowa logoFoodCorps

FoodCorps is a national volunteer service program that aims to get students to choose healthier food options during meals and build healthy habits outside of school. They also work to increase students’ understanding of which foods are good for them and why. FoodCorps measures their success through:

  • Changes in behavior
    • Students with more hands-on learning activities are eating triple the amounts of fruits and vegetables
  • Changes in attitudes
    • Students have better attitudes toward vegetables and are more likely to try new ones
  • Changes in schools
    • 75% of schools that FoodCorps serves were healthier school food environments by the end of the year served

School gardens

School gardens are areas of land where fruits, vegetables, and other plants are grown by students and community members for nutrition, recreation, and as an educational aid.

School gardens promote (Collective School Garden Network):

  • Environmental stewardship
  • Community and social development
  • Healthy lifestyles
  • Academic achievement

“School gardens provide a positive reward for physical activity,” said Tammy Stotts, coordinator of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s farm to school program. “A lot of kids don’t get the opportunity to try these food at home, so school gardens give them an opportunity to try it.”

School wellness policies

A local school wellness policy is a written document that guides a local educational agency or school district’s efforts to create supportive school nutrition and physical activity environments (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Farm to school can aid local school wellness policies with activities such as school gardens, farm tours and local procurement (National Farm to School Network). Click here to see our information page on school wellness policies.

Chain of command policies


Congress makes regulations and policies about the use of school meal funds, the procurement process, contracting requirements, and the goals and practices for using locally grown foods. Below are examples of federal policies that help shape farm to school programs:

Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004

  • Required all schools and districts participating in federally reimbursable meals programs create and adopt wellness policies by the 2006-07 school year.

Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010

  • Provides funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs, increases access to healthy food, and promotes overall student wellness.
  • Provides $5 million per year in mandatory funding for the Farm to School Grant Program.

USDA Farm to School Program & Farm to School Grant Program

  • Federal legislation authorized and funded the USDA to establish a farm to school program in order to assist schools and other agencies with improving access to locally grown foods.
  • Assist in implementing farm to school programs that improve access to local foods in eligible schools through training, planning, purchasing equipment and developing school gardens.

USDA Child Nutrition Programs

  • National School Lunch Program
  • School Breakfast Program
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
  • Afterschool Snack Program
  • Seamless Summer
  • Summer Food Service Program
  • Special Milk Program


The state of Iowa has programs that help aid schools in providing healthy meals to their students. Each of these programs reimburses schools to provide healthy food access to students.

Iowa Nutrition Network School Grant Program

  • Requires monthly nutrition education that aligns with the Iowa Core Curriculum

Iowa Department of Public Health’s Pick a Better Snack Program

  • Encourages fresh fruits and vegetables to be served during snack times

Iowa Farm to School Program

  • Provides funding to link schools with local farmers and organizations to offer fresh, locally grown food and nutrition based educational opportunities

FoodCorps Iowa

  • Provides service members to over two-dozen active chapters in Iowa. These members assist schools with nutrition education, school gardens, and bringing locally sourced foods into cafeterias.


Local school wellness policies are written by school districts and are developed to meet the specific needs of the schools under their administration. Click here for our school wellness overview page.


Berk, LE. 2012. Infants and Children: Prenatal Through Middle Childhood (7th ed.) Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Local School Wellness Policy.

Collective School Garden Network. Why School Gardens?

Des Moines Public Schools. For The Record.

Des Moines Public Schools. Students Celebrate Good Nutrition in October.

Food and Agricultural Organization of The United Nations. School Gardens.

FoodCorps. FoodCorps connects kids to healthy foods in schools.

Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Why Farm to School?

Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. “Wrap Your Own-Iowa Grown” Initiative.

Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. 2017 A Garden is the Way to Grow — Spicing up the Garden.

Iowa Department of Education. Farm to School.

Iowa Nutrition Network. Pick a Better Snack Lessons for Classroom Teachers.

National Education Association. Child Nutrition. (No longer available; see Nutrition Programs).

National Farm to School Network. About Farm to School.

National Farm to School Network. Farm to School Advocacy: Make your voice heard.

Purdue University Extension. Farm to School.

Stotts, T. Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship farm to school coordinator. Personal communication.

United States Department of Agriculture. Procuring Local Foods.

USDA. Local School Wellness Policy.

USDA. Food and Nutrition Service Programs.

USDA. Community Food Systems: Farm to School Grant Program.

USDA. Community Food Systems: Implementing Farm to School Activities.

USDA. The USDA Farm to School Planning Toolkit.

Weimerslage, T. Personal communication.

Washington State Department of Agriculture. School Wellness Policy.