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US School Lunches Get Fresher and More Local

What’s for lunch today? For millions of school students, the answer is increasingly likely to be fresh vegetables grown by nearby farmers, or, in a few states, fresh lamb or haddock, raised or caught locally.

Basket of fresh vegetables

Local foods, once rare on school lunch trays, are gradually becoming more available in school cafeterias as states promote fresh produce, legumes, meats and fish. This is clearly good news for all concerned.

Farm-to-school programs aim to improve the quality of school lunches and educate students about nutrition and where their food comes from. Programs also provide new markets for growers, which can strengthen local economies and contribute towards more vibrant communities. This was particularly evident when restaurants closed during lockdowns. Small farmers, ranchers and fishermen found farm-to-school programs a lifeline.

Today, nearly all states have a farm-to-school program, but at least 10 states enacted laws this year or last boosting theirs.

According to the National Farm to School Network, states that have recently passed legislation to expand farm-to-school programs include Michigan, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.

Meanwhile, the city of Milan, Italy, decided to test the benefits of plant-based foods in order to boost health and reduce its CO2 emissions - by lowering meat consumption in one specific sector: the city’s school canteens. Five years after tweaking schools’ cafeteria menus, the Italian city managed to achieve a 20 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions - the equivalent of taking about 13,000 cars off the road. The city’s vice-mayor for food policy, Anna Scavuzzo, hailed a “great result.”

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