When Anupama Joshi spoke in New Orleans recently at the International Farm to Table Symposium, she had great news for local farmers and growers. The cofounder and executive director of the National Farm to School Network said demand for locally sourced food products for school cafeterias has grown dramatically in the past 10 years and will continue to increase, as new U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional requirements go into effect and the farm-to-school movement continues to reach new constituencies.

Her prediction led one member in her audience to ask, “Are there enough growers and farms in Louisiana to meet the demands?”

That challenge is far different than the issue faced by fresh food proponents a decade ago, when they were advocating for change in school food procurement practices that had been in place for decades, she said. But as they lobbied for a new approach to school nutrition, school districts nationwide started to listen.

“It isn’t easy to completely change a culture that has been in place a long time,” Joshi said. “Simply serving locally sourced foods isn’t enough. The approach has to be comprehensive.”

What Joshi’s nonprofit urges is a program that connects education about food and nutrition, procurement of locally sourced foods and installation of school gardens for hands-on learning.

“If you serve a vegetable that is unfamiliar in school cafeteria, children won’t eat it. But if it is a vegetable the student has seen growing on a field trip to a local farm, or has planted and nurtured in the school garden, the result will be different,” Joshi said. “The child will take that knowledge home with them. Kids really can drive the change.”

The importance of healthful meals at school cannot be overstated, Joshi said, noting that lunch in the school cafeteria may be the only meal they receive that day, especially in economically challenged communities. Moreover, it has been studied and proven that well-nourished kids make better learners.

Although excellent nutrition for kids is the primary goal of the farm-to-school movement, Joshi said there are myriad additional benefits, especially to local economies.

“The economic impact is huge. Providing a market for fresh products from local farms has stimulated the farm economy, which had been in decline for decades,” she said. “And healthier kids aren’t only better learners but tend to remain healthier throughout their lifetimes, avoiding the negative economic impact of obesity and related illnesses.”

The USDA distributed a census focusing on farm to school to the nation’s 13,000 public school districts and was able to determine that more than 23 million students at 40,000 schools nationwide are benefiting from efforts to buy and serve locally sourced food products, thereby pumping nearly $386 million into local economies.