Crisscrossing the country, from Maine to California, and from Florida to Washington, farm to school programs exist from coast to coast in small, rural towns and large, urban metropolitan areas alike. We know school cafeterias are brimming with local and regionally sourced foods, giving kids more opportunity than ever to understand where their food comes from. 

What we don’t know is exactly how many schools are working with regional producers, building school gardens, or heading out on field trips to the farm. This spring, USDA is conducting a first of its kind nationwide Farm to School Census, surveying over 13,000 school districts to determine how many schools currently purchase local foods.

We’ll be asking about which types of local foods schools purchase, what percent of their budget is directed locally, how often they offer local options on the menu, and whether they plan to increase, decrease or maintain local purchasing at current levels. With this kind of market forecasting data in hand, local and regional producers will be better equipped to enter the school food market.

In addition to gathering data, the Census is also collecting great stories, like this one, from a school in Montana.

“We have purchased a number of local products, including beef, pork, lentils, bread, and seasonal produce. We have found specific products that we can incorporate regularly as staples, and ones that we can serve only sometimes as a treat – as we balance creating kid-friendly meals, meeting USDA meal pattern guidelines, and balancing our budget. One of the products that we piloted last year was Montana Beef Patties, which we purchased as ¼ lb patties – for a special local meal in October. We also served local roasted root vegetables, local pumpkin cake, Montana apples and Montana wheat bread.

Originally, the cost of the burgers was too expensive ($0.75/patty). We would never have been able to serve this meal on a regular basis. However, the pilot helped us to establish a relationship with the meat processors, and later in the year they developed a smaller portion patty that was within our price range ($0.49/patty). This year, we have spent over $14,000 on local beef patties. That pilot gave us and our producers the confidence and experience to move forward with a mutually beneficial relationship. This has been the case for every local product that we now use regularly. I believe many of these changes can seem not possible at first – but can be integrated sustainably over time. ”

Schools have until May 3 to complete the Census. Then we’re going to crunch the numbers and do the farm to school math.

Editor’s Note: For more information on USDA’s Farm to School Program, please visit the Farm to School website. For information on other USDA efforts to support local and regional food systems, please see the Know Your Farmer Compass.