by Jake Williams, Executive Director, Healthier Colorado
Colorado is known as the nation’s leanest state, but our state’s kids actually lag far behind adults. We’re ranked 29th in the nation for childhood obesity. Meanwhile, Colorado is also enjoying one of the strongest economic recoveries in the nation, but this recovery is uneven – our rural communities continue to lag behind on job growth and other economic indicators. Healthier Colorado’s first campaign will help advance state legislation that addresses both of these challenges.
Last September, I listened to a health official in Lamar describe her community’s challenges of childhood obesity and limited access to nutritious, affordable food. I glanced out the office window and saw the endless acres of farmland surrounding the city, and I considered the irony of having a problem being so close to a resource that could support a solution. As we continued the Healthier Colorado statewide tour that brought us westward over the mountains and looped back to the Front Range, I heard about the same obesity and food challenges in rural and urban communities. Then we arrived in Greeley to meet with Jeremy West, and a connection to a solution was made.
Jeremy is the Nutrition Services Director for Greeley-Evans School District 6. He started a farm to school program that has resulted in the district spending 22% of its budget on locally grown food, which has also helped the district increase the portion of food made from scratch to 62% – up from just 20% in 2011. This has all resulted in more nutritious food for kids. However, as Jeremy explained, his and other school districts face significant challenges in starting and growing farm to school programs. The chief challenge: there aren’t enough local agricultural producers in the market to support the demand of schools.
Jeremy is also a member of the state’s Farm to School Task Force, and they were developing a bill that would help solve that problem. They had identified the two main barriers to having more local producers in the market: food safety and competitive pricing. First, the small to mid-sized producers who would be interested in selling to schools often aren’t required to have the food safety measures in place that schools need, unlike larger producers, who are typically interested in selling in different markets. These food safety steps require money that these smaller, local producers don’t necessarily have. Second, it is difficult for these smaller local producers to compete on price against larger producers who source their food from around the world, especially if they have to make adjustments in what they produce and how they produce it in order to meet a school’s needs.
We then connected with the Farm to School Task Force to learn more about their work. The more we learned about their idea, the more excited we became. It also turned out they really welcomed some help in getting their bill introduced and passed. Now, we’re all in. Here is how the bill, HB15-1088, works and how it will strengthen both the health of Colorado’s kids and our economy.
HB15-1088 will create a grant program administered by the Farm to School Task Force that will issue grants to Colorado agricultural producers that address those barriers to entering into the farm to school market. Colorado producers can receive grants to help cover the costs of labor, material and equipment needed for food safety and other production costs that would enable them to sell their products to Colorado schools. The program would last 5 years and cost about $950,000 per year. Here is a summary of the bill. Let’s now talk about what we get for that money.
Colorado kids will get healthier. Farm to school programs benefit student nutrition in two ways. First, scientists have found that local fruits and vegetables are healthier, as the longer produce stays on the road, the more likely it is to lose nutrients. Second, there is also significant evidence (Vermont, Iowa) that when students and food service personnel have relationships with local farmers and producers, they are more likely to try new foods and use more fresh and less-processed foods. Students who attend schools with farm to school programs are 28% more likely to choose healthy meal options than those who attend schools without such programs. Research also shows that that students who attend schools that serve fresh fruits and vegetables have a 14% lower chance of being overweight or obese.
Our economy will also get stronger, especially in those rural communities who need it the most. In the 2013-14 academic year, Colorado schools served a total of 91 million meals, at the cost of $180 million dollars. Schools are a significant market for local agricultural producers. Nationwide, farmers who participate in farm to school programs see an average 5% increase in their total income. This has ripple effects that improve the health of our whole economy; studies show that each $1 invested in farm to school programs produces $2.16 of local economic activityand for every one job created by schools purchasing local food, 1.67 more jobs are created locally.
This is truly a win-win bill, but like any piece of legislation – especially one that costs money – we will need all the help we can get to see it passed into law. The Governor and our legislators need to see that this is a priority for folks across Colorado.
Postscript: HB15-1088 made it though the House but died in a Senate committee. To read about the bill’s journey including who voted for and against it, see