Eat Up, Kids, This Spud's for You
With the dawn of the 2008-09 school year, districts across the country are signing on to the burgeoning "farm-to-school" movement.
About time. Eons ago, I fought to get soda out of our middle school cafeteria. It was a hard sell because the school made money off it. The board spent over a year waffling over the definition of junk food, but my side finally won--on that issue. When I started in on "McDonald's Day" (which happened every week), I was informed the school would never go against this one, since it was a big money maker for the PTO.
By Anne Marie Chaker
Karen Kleinkopf, whose two daughters attend Great Salt Bay Community School in Damariscotta, Maine, visited the cafeteria at lunchtime one day last fall. "The response was incredible," she says. "Little kids were eating organic potatoes saying, 'I love this. Can we have this every day?' "
Union No. 74 school district in Damariscotta is on a mission to freshen up its cafeteria menu. Starting with a pilot project last year, the district of four schools, kindergarten through eighth grade, began working with farmers to get local produce onto lunch menus. Salad veggies and potatoes came from Goranson Farm in nearby Dresden, while Spear's Farm in Waldoboro provided corn on the cob. For 15 weeks, these items replaced the tougher, well-traveled veggies typically bought from large distributors.
The kids ate the stuff up, with cafeteria workers reporting as much as one-third less "plate waste" than with the typical fare, says Michael Sanborn, the district's nutrition director.
With the dawn of the 2008-09 school year, districts across the country are signing on to the burgeoning "farm-to-school" movement. As a result, a number of school districts have cut back on fruits and vegetables purchased from large distributors in favor of working individually with local farmers. While that can be more expensive and may involve more work -- from procurement to preparation -- food directors say it pays dividends in fresher, better-tasting produce that more kids eat.
Signing up more kids for school lunches can help the bottom line, since schools receive a per-student subsidy from the Agriculture Department's National School Lunch Program. At the same time, schools are bolstering regional agricultural economies.
More than 50 million students eat lunch in school cafeterias daily. Often, the produce that appears on their trays is shipped from far-away states. While that may sometimes be necessary in the colder climes, increasing concerns about issues such as food safety and childhood obesity may prompt more districts to seek out local fare when it's in season.
Goodbye, French Fries
In upstate New York, the Saratoga Springs City School District has gotten rid of french fries and tater tots, in favor of whole potatoes -- typically served roasted or baked -- from Sheldon Farms in nearby Salem. In Connecticut, South Windsor School District now buys salad vegetables, such as lettuce and cucumbers, from Groszyk Farms down the road in Enfield. Even the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest system behind New York City's, has gone local: Rather than relying on a single food distributor, the district now sends a buyer to farmers' markets in the wee hours of the morning each day.
In past years, the biggest obstacle to the go-local movement may have been the federal government, whose regulations restricted schools from "geographic preferences" in procuring food. But the federal Farm Bill passed earlier this year loosened that restriction, giving the movement a big boost.
Moreover, at least 18 states in recent years have passed legislation encouraging schools to use local produce, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut's Department of Agriculture puts school districts in touch with nearby farmers and maintains an online directory of state farmers interested in serving schools. Maryland allows state-run schools to favor state-grown produce, even if it's slightly more expensive than products grown out-of-state.
Two nonprofits -- the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the Community Food Security Coalition in Portland, Ore. -- formed a program last year to link up schools with nearby farms across the country. The National Farm to School Network estimates 2,000 programs have been set up. Since its inception, the network has advised parents, farmers and school administrators interested in starting their own farm-to-school movement, and also lobbied for changes in federal legislation that would make it easier to do so, says co-director Marion Kalb.
Pushed by schools, nonprofit organizations and parents, even major food distributors are changing the way they operate. Gaithersburg, Md.-based food-service provider Sodexo Inc., which serves 4,000 schools across the country, over the past couple of years has developed a regional supplier network of 80 food distributors that could better ship locally to schools. Sysco Corp., Houston, which delivers food and supplies to hundreds of thousands of schools, hospitals and restaurants each day, is piloting an effort in Kansas City, Mo., to work more closely with some 40 Amish and Mennonite farmers.
Even so, for local schools, working directly with farmers has its advantages, says Mary Ann Lopez, director of food services for the South Windsor Public Schools. While she still uses Sysco for dry goods, as well as produce, in the off-season, she values her new relationship with the local farmers. There's also an educational opportunity in knowing the local farm: This coming school year, one of the farms will be hosting students for berry-picking, for instance.
"Our local farm is more than just a supplier of potatoes," says Margaret Lamb, the school lunch program director in Saratoga Springs, who plans on bringing the farmers themselves into classes to talk about agriculture this coming school year. "We want kids to know where their food comes from, how it is grown and what it means to our environment when you have beautiful farmland and rolling hills instead of a housing development."
Still, going local comes with some challenges.
First, it's often more expensive. "That has to be addressed upfront and acknowledged," says Mr. Sanborn in Damariscotta. But a big advantage lies in supporting local farms and "keeping local dollars local." The regional economic development office contributed about $5,000 for the pilot last year, which funded additional kitchen equipment and the purchase of various local fruits and vegetables. Mr. Sanborn says that thanks to the enthusiastic reaction from kids and parents, the district plans to continue the program if it can find other sources of funding.
Preparing fresh items often means more effort. Ms. Lamb in Saratoga Springs says that on days when potatoes appear on the menu, the cafeteria staff works extra hard slicing and dicing. "It's much easier to open a box of frozen french fries and throw them on a tray" than the manual work of washing and cutting.
Produce in Season
Another challenge with farm-to-school networks is that school menus have to be adjusted to local growing seasons. But a close relationship with a farmer could mean access to produce even when it's not in season. Connecticut's South Windsor district works with a potato farmer who knows the district's needs in the winter months. "He knows to grow enough and store them for me so I have them from November to March," says Ms. Lopez.
She still uses Sysco year-round for produce when it's not locally available. But during the growing season, she says, her business with the distributor is about 25% less than what it used to be.
For its part, Sysco says decisions such as Ms. Lopez's haven't hurt business. "It's very, very small," says spokesman Mark Palmer.
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Anne Marie Chaker
Wall Street Journal
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