New York state is a major agricultural producer of fruits, vegetables and dairy products, but New York school districts don’t currently purchase a large percentage of their food products locally.
Now a new state budget proposal is being floated in Albany which would increase the state’s financial support of school meals while driving more of New York schools’ purchases toward local farmers. If adopted by state lawmakers, it could be a win-win for both school kids and the local agricultural economy.
TLT: Can you explain the basics of the program the NYSNA is proposing?
NZ: We want to incentivize schools to purchase locally grown and produced food, while at the same time increase the state’s reimbursement to schools, which has remained at 6 cents for the last 40 years. So the idea is that the program would invest another additional 5 to 25 cents per meal for schools across New York to purchase fruits, vegetables, dairy products and other healthy foods grown in New York.
TLT: There’s a big difference between 5 cents and 25 cents per meal, so how exactly would a district be reimbursed for purchasing more locally grown food?
NZ: The reimbursement rate would be dependent upon the percentage of locally grown and produced products schools purchase each year. If schools’ purchased a minimum of 10 percent local of total food purchases yearly, they’d get an extra five cents a meal. If the local purchases reach 15 percent, they’d get an extra ten cents a meal, and if they reach a minimum of twenty percent in local food purchases, the funding would increase to twenty-five cents a meal.
The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets would provide guidance for schools of farmers, food processors, and distributors that could provide such foods grown or produced in New York to purchase, with input from experts such as the Governor’s Council on Food Policy. The Department of Agriculture and Markets would then work with the State Education Department to determine appropriate payments per district based on the amount of food purchased from New York and the school district’s monthly average daily participation.
TLT: Do any other states have a program like this already in place?
NZ: Oregon has been a national leader in supporting farm-to-school purchasing. I know there are a few other states that are working on similar legislation as well. [The National Farm to School Network has more information on leading state farm-to-school programs.]
TLT: Why does the NYSNA feel this program is so important?
NZ: According to the New York State Department of Health, 17 percent of New Yorkers under the age of 18 are obese and nearly 33 percent are overweight or obese. Unless something is done to counter these numbers, these obese youth will become obese and sick adults, which in turn will place a strain on New York State’s Medicaid program. That program is already spending $4.3 billion a year on obesity and related illnesses – with $330 million of that being attributed to obesity in children.
School meals are an important component in promoting healthy eating habits in children and may be the only source of nutrition some children will receive all day. In New York, schools serve 1.7 million lunches and 500,000 breakfasts each day – which puts them on the front line of combatting hunger and childhood obesity – and yet the state meal reimbursement rate has remained at six cents for the last 40 years.
It’s in the interest of the state to promote programs that provide healthy food to children while supporting greater economic opportunities for New York’s farmers.
TLT: What can concerned New York public school parents (and others) do to support your efforts?
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers?
NZ: The fight to end childhood obesity in New York State needs to be an organized effort between the government and community partners. By increasing the amount of funding the schools receive to buy healthy food produced in New York, you’re giving farmers and the local economy a boost while also telling students that “we care what you eat,” and giving them education on where their food comes from. We feel strongly this is a win-win for the state’s agricultural sector and the health of our students.
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