Locavores in the Lunchroom

As American kids begin the new school year, they will no longer be greeted by gray mystery meat and wobbly Jello when the lunch bell rings. New federal regulations bolstered by local grassroots efforts are changing school lunch menus and revolutionizing the lunchroom experience.

The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act made it possible for the USDA to mandate nutritional standards for school lunches. For the first time in 15 years new national requirements for school meals include daily fruit and vegetable offerings, whole grains, low fat or fat free milk and an overall reduction of saturated fat, trans fat and sodium on lunch menus. While these standards appear to be a step forward, some are skeptical about the ability of the USDA – who only last year touted pizza as a vegetable, to truly improve lunchtime nutrition.

The real heros in the lunchroom revolution are local organizations across the United States who are are using a variety of techniques to ensure a sustainable and nutritious lunchtime. Last week after announcing that New York City’s Wellness in the Schools (WITS) program which recruits professional chefs to prepare school lunches could not continue as it could not ensure compliance with federal guidelines, the Education Department reversed course. WITS, which last year prepared nutritious lunches and raised awareness about fitness and the environment in 30 New York schools will be able to continue their work, and also ensure that menus meet the new USDA requirements.

In addition to creating healthier menus, bringing nutritious snacks to vending machines and encouraging water over soda and other sugar laden beverages, a push has been made to help school districts procure local food. As part of their Farm to School initiative, Portland based Ecotrust launched FoodHub, a social networking tool that connects farmers with school food buyers.   Approximately 125 school districts serving over 670,000 students are registered with FoodHub which organizes the local market and boosts the success of farmers by providing additional channels for marketing and sales.  Thanks to FoodHub, Oregon school children can enjoy food grown just down the street from their lunchrooms.

There is a need for the FoodHub model to be leveraged across other school districts in the United States.  In 2011, Mayor Bloomberg signed legislation requiring city agencies to track where their food comes from.  According to the Office of SchoolFood, 10% of food (excluding milk, most of which comes from NY state) could be produced in the region. Yet, of the $125 million New York City spends to feed 860,000 children a day, a very limited amount goes to regional farmers.  New York spends only $1 per meal, which makes it very difficult for smaller farmers to compete with large operations who can offer products at a lower cost.  While New York City and State have expressed support for helping local farmers distribute their products within the school system, they have not provided the funds to help current buying habits.

How can we help bring sustainable food to the next generation? Sometimes all it takes is a simple replacement of a popular lunchtime item, with a similar locally grown product. New York can learn from school districts in Rhode Island who replaced frozen French fries with roasted local small potatoes that farmers could not sell.  In Minnesota, farmers leveraged butternut squash with bruises into a frozen product for local schools by peeling, cutting and freezing squash cubes.  In other instances, it is clear that a policy change is required.  Local farmers wanting to sell to New York City schools are required to purchase a costly liability insurance policy which prevents small and midsized farms from participating in city contracts. The overhaul to a new school food system requires participation from policymakers as well as schools who can pool resources from  USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable grant (available to schools where 50% or more students receive free or low cost lunches), state agriculture departments and private donors and parents to ensure their cafeterias are serving healthy meals made from local and sustainable ingredients.  By sending the right messages to kids in the classroom and in the cafeteria, we can foster an appreciation for great food in the next generation.

– Marisa Harary


(Onearth Magazine, Fresh Food for All: August 21 2012)
Civil Eats, Foodhub Uses Online Social Networking to Get Farm Fresh Food to School Cafeterias,:  June 28 2012

Notes from the Garden

More reasons to like local. MMMM, mmmm, mercury!