When I was in college, the food in my cafeteria was so bad that my diet mostly consisted of Lucky Charms and microwaved mozzarella on pitas (in full honesty, my uninterested palate was also to blame). Wish I was a student now, though. In many universities across the United States, the food is getting better and better.

The farm-to-college movement has spread all over the country, increasing farmer income, improving student eating habits and supporting local economies in over 135 universities from Kenmore, Washington (Bastyr University, which spends $14,000 out of its $190,000 yearly budget on local salad greens, kale, chard and beets) to Raleigh, North Carolina (NC State, which spends $100,000 of its annual $4 mil on local poultry, pork, and produce).

The national Farm To School program, its official little sister, has operational programs in 38 states, with an estimated 2,000 farm-to-school programs that involve about 8,000 schools.

What better time to teach people about food and agriculture than in their youth? Now that less than 2 percent of the US population farms and the Federal Census Bureau has declared the number of farms “statistically insignificant,” people more than ever need to know the importance of farming and good food.

Just as important are programs linking farms with hospitals, hotels and other behemoths. If we figure out a way to organize small farms, to centralize processing and distribution, organic, local food from small farms might actually be able to compete against denatured, industrial food with enough frequent flier miles for a free trip to Disneyland.

As fabulous as these farm-to-cafeteria programs are, most of them will freely admit that buying local means paying more and working harder. They do it still, and we applaud them for it, but our focus should be on figuring out ways to streamline the process so that it’s a fair, reasonable, sustainable choice rather than a pity vote, albeit well-deserved.

Story by Paul Cezanne. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008