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Fruits, vegetables and other healthy snack options are often woefully absent from schools. Vending machines and snack bars are stocked with foods void of essentail nutrients and that are laden with sugar and hydrogenated fats. The USDA recently finalized standards for school snacks that will go into effect for 2014-2015. The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project (a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) called this "an important step for improving kids' health" and went on to say, “The next vital part of the process is for districts to begin implementing these standards. The guidelines established by USDA serve as a baseline—states and...
Organic certification is by no means a perfect science. But what happens when the pesticides from one non-organic farm cross over to a neighboring organic farm? Should the organic farm lose its certification because of the actions of their non-organic neighbor? According to a recent ruling in Colorado, the answer is a resounding “NO.” The non-organic farm now has a legal obligation to prevent the pesticides from crossing over. Failure to do so may result in a charge akin to trespassing.  The judge’s ruling was careful to protect the rights of both landowners, but cautioned pesticide users to avoid spraying when winds could carry chemicals to a neighboring field. Though critical to...
An interesting interview in the Toronto Star piqued our interest recently. Pierre Desrochers, an associate geography professor at the University of Toronto and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet, was facing questions about his argument that a global food supply is better than a local one.   In the piece, the interviewer does a nice job of questioning Desrochers about his assertions, which end up being much narrower than they at first seem. He isn’t arguing against local food when it’s in-season, or apparently when it tastes better (as in the case of strawberries). Rather, he’s arguing against local food when it’s mandated, or promoted to the exclusion...
A great new infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists does an absolutely incredible job of showing the discrepancy between the typical American diet and the one recommended by the USDA. It also shows how subsidies to producers of the Big Five commodity crops (wheat, corn, soy, rice, and cotton) prevent U.S. farmers from planting the fruits and vegetables we need to be healthy.  The investment required to make this vital change is puny ($90 million) compared to the subsidies awarded to the producers mentioned above (over $5 billion), and the benefits to local economies could be significant. Here’s the infographic (read on below it for more from the Union of Concerned Scientists...
According to the USDA, CSAs, farmers' markets, and other direct farm-to-consumer sales are spreading like wildfire. And now is the time of year when farms are signing up people to participate. For the uninitiated, CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” where customers essentially pay up front for a share of a given farm’s annual produce.  It’s important to do your research before signing on to a CSA, so here are some things to consider: Variations on the CSA Theme Some CSAs are tied directly to the farm, but others are run more like buying clubs where the CSA organizers buy from a number of different farmers, and you may be able to get fruit, meat, cheese and even fibers,...
We recently linked to a great blog post from Derek Singleton, a distribution management sofware analyst, where he argued that the U.S. stands to benefit from a more European-style local food distribution system. Now, Singleton’s back with a thoughtful analysis of how technology can help alleviate some of the challenges of food deserts. According to the USDA, a food desert is defined as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” Low access in rural areas is defined as 10 miles, versus one mile in urban areas. In the piece, Singleton consults several experts and discusses some local food distribution...
  Much has been made of the USDA Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass. We at FarmPlate approached the new tool with a healthy skepticism, particularly the map, which attempts to show all of the projects that the USDA has helped to fund in the last several years. While we’re still not impressed with the clunkiness of the map (its user guide is seven pages long, though they promise ongoing improvements), the rest of the site is surprisingly user-friendly, and in some cases downright inspiring. One part that tickles our fancy is a convincing argument about why local agriculture is so beneficial called “The What and Why of Local Foods,” particularly the parts where the USDA is...
On Friday, the USDA announced the 298 recipients of funds from the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program, totaling over $40 million and impacting 44 states and Puerto Rico. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan made the announcement at the Local/Regional Food System Conference in Chicago. Funds may be used for feasibility studies or business plans, working capital for marketing value-added farm products and for farm-based renewable energy projects, according to the USDA. Some of the great businesses receiving awards include the following (click on them to learn more about their business): Living Water Farms • Strawn, Illinois  Agriberry • Studley,...
Even though urban food systems typically require at least some supply to come from farms and producers outside of city limits, what about those producers outside of those food systems? The ones deep in the country? A new study being conducted by the University of Missouri Extension and the University of Nebraska aims to formulate methodologies to develop more vibrant markets for those rural farmers. The study will target regions like the northern Ozarks, and it will be geared toward creating easier and smoother relationships between farmers and buyers. The research is funded through a grant from the USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative fund. We look forward to learning the...
A disturbing recent study found that schools are diverting $1 billion of USDA-donated produce and meat and shipping it to food processing operations, who turn it into – well, the school lunches you probably remember – chicken nuggets, French fries, flavored milk and the like.  The sad part? Many school cafeterias no longer actually cook food, but rather reheat the processed creations they’ve outsourced. The outrageous part? Schools are often spending more to process their food (to the tune of up to three times the cost) than it would cost to cook real food. All told, these schools are essentially spending the same amount of money to remove the nutrients from their food.  The...
If you’re interested in seeing healthier food in school lunches, you probably watched eagerly as President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law last December, and the USDA followed by announcing upgraded nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program. After 15 years of stagnant school lunch policy, the Obama Administration’s efforts to promote healthy food seemed to finally be bringing about change. But if you followed the news this week, you’ve probably been seeing headlines like, “Congress says Pizza and French Fries Are Vegetables” or “At Schools, Making Pizza A Vegetable.” The articles all present pretty...
New analysis by the USDA says the local food market is bigger than previously expected — $4.8 billion in 2008. That includes “sales to intermediaries, such as local grocers and restaurants, as well as directly to consumers through farmers markets, roadside stands and the like." The real story, though, is the continued growth expected to achieve. Between 1998 and 2009, the number of farmers’ markets doubled, and growth in total sales of local food is expected to top $7 billion this year, a 46% increase between 2008 and 2011. The bulk of the new sales came from supermarkets and restaurants, and the USDA analysis didn’t include sales to schools and other institutions. Take a look at this...
In a recent blog post, Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott sends a mixed message to aspiring young farmers. On the one hand, it’s a good time to be a small, local food producer selling direct to consumers; that market is growing. On the other hand, good luck raising money to start a farm. And even if you do scrounge up the funding, even better luck finding affordable health insurance.   According to the USDA, direct sales from local farms to consumers are at their highest level since the early 1980’s. And the benefits to the local economy of buying direct from farms are clear as ever, according to Philpott. But despite a strong market, the recent increase in young, hip folks heading back to the...
National Farmers' Market Week wrapped up last Friday, but there's still a buzz in the air. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack proclaimed the week a celebration of the "benefits of farmers' markets and the bountiful production of our Nation's farmers." Indeed, there was much to get excited about. According to the USDA, "farmers' markets play a key role in developing local and regional food systems that support the sustainability of family farms; revitalize communities; offer consumers affordable, convenient, and healthful products and potentially reduce childhood obesity." The good news? The number of farmers' markets in the United States grew 17% last year. There are now 7,175 farmers'...
Farmers' markets are on the rise. According to the USDA, there was a 16% increase in farmers' markets in the U.S. last year alone. In some cases, this popularity and success has attracted people who are more interested in making a buck than in maintaining sustainable principles. Markets throughout the country, including in the Northwest, Midwest and Southern California, have experienced problems this season with people posing as food producers selling at these markets as well as markets misleadingly being labeled farmer's markets. This has raised questions throughout the country as to what the term "farmers' market" really means. According to the Wall Street Journal, two large supermarket...