February 13, 2002
Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy
(518) 455-5203
New Law Supports Healthy Kids And Healthy Farms
First in the Nation Law Promotes New York Farm Products to Schools

(Albany, NY) - Every day school cafeterias in New York State serve nearly 2 million lunches and breakfasts. Unfortunately, besides the carton of milk not much of the food served in the cafeterias comes from local farms. Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn), Chair of the Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy would like to change that and is pleased to announce Governor Pataki's approval of his bill (A.7684/S.4886) to create a farm-to-school program that would help increase local farmers' share of the school food service market.

Ortiz worked on this issue with supporters including the NYS School Food service Association, representing school food service directors; NY FARMS!, a coalition of local farm advocates; NYS Farm Bureau; Cornell University, which is administering a federal grant to develop farm-to-school pilot projects; and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Community Food Security office. "This was a joint effort by many groups committed to forging bonds between schools and farms and city and rural residents. On behalf of our children and farmers I want to thank the hard work of the school food service directors who made this law a reality. I am also particularly proud to join 20 downstate Assemblymembers who co-sponsored this law," said Ortiz.

New York State school meal programs serve meals with an annual value over $500 million. This is a huge potential market for New York farm products. Over 600 schools districts that were recently surveyed by the NYS School Foodservice Association's NY FARMS! Task Force reported using hundreds of thousands of cases of apples, cider, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and shredded cabbage, all goods that are commonly grown and produced in New York.

According to Ortiz, "I developed this bill to get the Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Education Department to help local schools and farmers find each other. With this program a State Web site could be created where school food service directors and marketers of New York farm products could easily identify sellers, buyers and available products. Increasing school purchases of New York produced food would help improve the bottom line of New York farmers at a time when the loss of farmers and farmland continues to accelerate because of low profits in agriculture."

The legislation will establish a farm-to-school program where the two departments would gather information from school districts and other education institutions interested in purchasing New York farm products and make this information readily available to interested New York farmers, farm organizations and businesses that market New York farm products. They would also provide information to interested educational institutions about the availability of New York farm products. The law will also establish a New York Harvest for New York Kids Week promotional event in early October each year to promote New York agriculture and foods to children through school meal programs and the classroom, and at farms and farmers' markets in the community.

This program would not operate in a vacuum. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers school meal programs as well as agricultural programs, recently established its Small Farms/School Meals Initiative as an "important step toward improving both the economic stability of small farmers and the long-term health of children in our school systems."

Farm and community food security advocates, such as NY Farms! and Farm Bureau, are also working together to promote farm-to-school marketing. In addition, Cornell University's Division of Nutritional Sciences is part of a national consortium that won a federal grant to develop or expand farm-to-school pilot projects. Two such projects are planned in school districts in the Binghamton area and Oswego County. Several years ago the Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy sponsored State laws that allow for bidding exemptions, making it easier for schools to buy direct from local farms.

Ortiz added, "The timing for this program is right. More and more consumers, chefs and food writers are extolling the virtues of local farm products for quality, safety and nutrition. Buying local foods maintains farms and open space, which helps protect our natural resources, for example the New York City watershed. Increased consumption of local fruit and vegetables could also help address another problem I am working on, the epidemic of childhood obesity. New York State government should make every possible effort to maximize the use of government funding for school meals to purchase nutritious, locally produced foods to benefit the health of students, our local economies and environment and provide new opportunities for Upstate and Downstate, city and rural residents to support each other."

Assemblyman Ortiz looks forward to working with the two State agencies, school food service directors, farmers, teachers, businesses and others to implement this program. His Task Force has been promoting New York Harvest Week to schools for the past six years.

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