As the Legislature continues swinging its scythe at the state budget, one of the programs about to be felled is Farm to School. And in case you don't have kids that can tell you firsthand the benefits of the program, or if you're not an Alaska grower that finds a market in supplying school cafeterias with Alaska Grown produce, let us tell you what the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Agriculture, Farm to School Program does: It provides expertise and support for those working to increase the connection of students, teachers and school food service providers with products grown and produced in Alaska. This connection most commonly happens in the school lunchroom or in a school garden.
Yet, in a state that prides itself on self-reliance, consider these striking facts:
1. Alaskans spend $1.5 BILLION dollars on imported food each year.
2. Only 5-10 percent of food consumed is produced or harvested in state, but great swaths of arable land remain uncultivated.
3. About 15 percent of Alaska households are food insecure.
4. Alaskans spend about $450 million dollars on treating diet-related medical conditions.
5. We have a population that is largely disconnected from the food system -- most kids can't tell you what lies beneath the frilly green of a carrot top coming out of the soil.
These figures might sound gloomy, but they highlight the immense opportunity that we have to become healthier, wealthier and more food secure. What if we spent that $1.5 billion on Alaska-grown products and kept that money in local economies? What if we produced more healthy foods in quantities that could meet the demands of our school cafeterias? What if we provided our children with the tools and knowledge necessary to make healthy food choices and maintain a healthy weight?
We already have a key mechanism to achieving these goals -- it's the Farm to School Program. The Farm to School Program helps to prioritize getting locally produced, healthy goods into cafeterias; raise a generation of food leaders and smart consumers; and create a large, reliable market for increased in-state food production.
In three short years, the number of Alaska school districts involved in Farm to School has grown from zero to 68 percent. There's been an 11 percent increase in school gardens statewide. All of Alaska's school districts are now serving at least one local food item in their meal programs and there's still tremendous room for growth. In five years, the program has leveraged over $1 million from partner agencies. This is just the short list of accomplishments.
All of this and more has been achieved with an annual budget of about $190,000. Talk about bang for your buck! If the Legislature eliminates or cuts funding to the Farm to School Program, they aren't cutting the fat out of the budget. They are cutting the carrots, the potatoes, the greens and even the local fish out of your children's lunches, and they're cutting supports necessary to expand in-state production.
We implore the Legislature not to eliminate or reduce the funding for our Farm to School Program. It is an incredibly efficient use of a small amount of funds that has proven itself over the past five years and is one of the shining pillars of a state food system that is becoming stronger, more sustainable and more resilient. Don't let the Legislature undo our current progress, and don't let it stand in the way of what more can be done.
Liz Snyder teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She and Victoria Briggs are co-chairs of the Alaska Food Policy Council. Lisa Sadleir-Hart and Briggs are past co-chairs of the cil.