Across the country, efforts to connect schools and other public institutions to local food and producers are blossoming in myriad ways, and this diversity was evident the 1,100 attendees of the 2014 National Farm to Cafeteria Conference held recently in Austin, Texas. Farm to institution efforts bring local food into schools, colleges, hospitals, and other institutions. They involve everyone from students to policy makers, doing work ranging from boots-on-the-ground education work in schools to research, networking, and advocacy. But, nearly two decades since the modern Farm to School movement got going, there was one topic that seemed to interest—and impact—everyone at the latest National Conference: Policy.

Food policy is a key tool in the work to build more robust and healthy local food systems. Good food policy can remove barriers and create opportunities for consumers and producers, and a number of states have created policies that catalyzed their Farm to Institution efforts. These policies take many forms; as we continue working to support Farm to Institution efforts in Montana, there is a lot we can learn from their models. Here’s a roundup of some of the most exciting policy models that were represented recently at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, as well as information about how you can get involved in Grow Montana’s Farm to Institution work here in Montana:

Farm to School Coordinator Position: Some states, including Alaska and Oklahoma, have passed legislation creating a position within a state agency—such as the Department of Agriculture, Education, or Natural Resources—to promote, coordinate, and otherwise support Farm to Institution efforts. Some states, such as Vermont and Oregon, have actually created two positions within their departments of Agriculture and Education. Other states go beyond a “Farm to School” coordinator, instead choosing to appoint a “Farm to Institution” or “local food” coordinator. Regardless of their title and exact scope, these coordinators serve as a critical “one stop shop” for Farm to School information and action in the state; smooth out barriers between producers, institutions, and regulators; create educational and evaluation resources; help leverage state resources to support and strengthen Farm to Institution in the State; and more.

Official Farm to School Taskforce: A variation on the Farm to School Coordinator position is the Farm to School Taskforce: a group that is appointed to identify needs, make connections, and support farm to school efforts on a state-wide level. Although they receive state endorsement, only some state taskforces receive state funding, other times they are left to find support on their own. Colorado’s Farm to School Taskforce was created in 2010; since then farm to school efforts have increased by 400%, thanks in part to their coordination efforts and resources.

Farm to School Funding: Many states, including Vermont, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon, have created grant and reimbursement programs to help support farm to school projects. Vermont’s innovative mini-grant program provides up to $15,000 per school district to assist with planning and implementing school garden projects and farm to school food sourcing, while Alaska’s legislature has set aside $3 million to reimburse schools for purchasing school food that was locally farmed or fished. Because securing funding is one of the most difficult steps to establishing a farm to institution grant program, some states have recently begun finding creative ways to fund their grant programs. In New Jersey, for instance, taxpayers now have the option of supporting Farm to School efforts through a voluntary contribution on their state income taxes.

Many states partner a grant program with a farm to school coordinator, who often administers the program along with other duties. In a number of cases, advocates first established the coordinator position, and later were able to pass a grant program as Farm to Institution successes and support continued to grow.

Farm to Table Caucus: One of the most innovative policy ideas discussed at the conference came from the host state of Texas. There, state Representative Eddie Rodriguez has founded the Texas House Farm to Table Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators who work together to create policy that helps support thriving local food systems. Speaking to conference attendees, Rodriguez said the caucus created opportunities for cooperation and dialogue between policy makers from rural and urban communities and from both sides of the political aisle. And they’re getting things done: so far, the Texas farm to table caucus has passed bills to create a cottage food industry and streamline farmers market regulations, and they have their sights on further improvements. Legislators in Montana could choose to organize themselves into a similar caucus.

Back in the Big Sky State
Farm to Institution is one of Grow Montana’s main focus areas; returning from the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, we’re more energized than ever, and we hope that you will get involved!

Currently, the Grow Montana steering committee is exploring our 2015 legislative priorities, and our farm to institution subcommittee is investigating what policies might be right to strengthen and increase farm to institution efforts in Montana. We rely on practitioners—farmers, ranchers, food buyers, activists, nutritionists, processors, etc.—to give us ideas and directions. If you have ideas for policies, or even specific legislation, that we should explore for 2015, please send them to nancym@ncat.org. If policy’s not your thing, you can let us know what challenges you are running into as you work towards a Montana-based food system—even if you don’t know exactly what the policy issue is, just send your thoughts over, and we’ll see what we can find out.

And be sure to stay up-to-date by signing up for the Montana Food and Ag. Listserv and subscribing to The Dirt Montana e-newsletter, as we’ll have more news later in the year!