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Connecting schools to farms

As has happened before, you will read this column after a major legislative debate I would like to update you on, but I am writing this a couple days before the debate takes place.

That debate is on LB364, which would provide two things. First, it would provide tax credits to donors who help low-income families with scholarships to private schools. Second, it would provide tax credits to donors who help grow our state’s early childhood education efforts. Both are legislative efforts the Nebraska Catholic Conference has supported. For an update on how the debate went, I encourage you to join our network at www.necatholic.org. Also, stay tuned next week as I’ll provide a summary of the debate.

For now, I’d like to turn your attention to another piece of legislation the NCC supports that recently passed first round of debate earlier in the week. That bill is LB396, the Farm-to-School Program Act, introduced by Senator Tom Brandt (Plymouth) and prioritized by Speaker Mike Hilgers (Lincoln).

LB396 has the overarching goal of helping Nebraska elementary and secondary schools—both public and non-public—have greater access to locally- and regionally-produced food. The hope is that this will promote healthy eating habits among children and improve our local agricultural economy by local schools purchasing from local farmers.

As Sen. Brandt noted during the legislative committee hearing and first round of legislative debate, far too often our schools are purchasing their food in bulk from out-of-state providers. This does a disservice to our local economy by sending our hard-earned dollars to other states. It also inhibits access to fresher fruits, vegetables, and meats which are healthier options for Nebraska’s students. Sen. Brandt has demonstrated that while buying locally can sometimes be perceived as more expensive, the truth is that the prices of buying locally, even when not in bulk, are competitive.

LB396 also has an educational component for students. The legislation is not merely about getting food on the table but it is also about helping students understand how that food gets to the table. The bill will help students with “hand-on learning opportunities, including, but not limited to, farm visits, cooking demonstrations, and school gardening and composting programs, and that integrate nutrition and agricultural education into the school curricula.”
So why does this bill matter to the Nebraska Catholic Conference? Several reasons can be identified for the NCC’s support.

Our schools thrive on community relationships, built upon a bedrock of local control and family engagement. Knowing the friends and community members who help our schools and communities thrive is critical to human flourishing. Pope Francis has often spoken on the theme of “alienation.” Whether the alienation is from our own family and friends who surround us or the land that we work around us, this alienation is contrary to our human spirit which seeks community with others and seeks to know God through the work of our hands.

LB396 also helps focus student attention on the basics of food production, gardening, composting, and nutrition. These themes, among many others, can help students gain a better respect for—as Pope Francis puts its—our common home. As the Holy Father states: “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.” It is through this working together that we can have a better respect for environmental issues and gain a true sense of stewardship for creation.

Finally, the Farm-to-School Program serves as an opt-in program and not a mandate on our schools. LB396 affords the opportunity for schools to take part in the program. In doing so, this respects the autonomy and independence of non-public schools as they seek to educate children to excellence. This inviting approach lends to a spirit of community and collaboration, rather than a top-down enforcement of state education law.

LB396 passed with an overwhelming amount of support and we anticipate that it will continue to do so in the following rounds of legislative debate. In the meanwhile, I invite our families and farmers in our schools to think about how you might connect with your local schools to advance the work of LB396.

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