When the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week a new federal rule that will give preference to unprocessed locally grown and locally raised foods, it was heralded as a big achievement for the farm-to-school movement. The next step, says one leader in the movement, is educating schools so they know farm-to-school programs are a feasible option for their cafeterias.
Megan Lott, the associate policy director of the National Farm to School Network and Community Food Security Coalition, tells the Inside Track that the biggest challenge facing the farm-to-school movement in the coming months will be getting the word out to schools that such programs can be an improvement over their current meal programs — and helping the schools implement them.
“For so long, schools could not do this,” she says. “There’s still quite a few that are really hesitant.”
Lott’s group is leading the educational effort by releasing a one-page fact sheet on the final USDA rule, which explains how it can be applied on campus. The organization also is working with local and regional leaders so they can get the word out on the ground level and help schools directly.
There are obstacles for schools to overcome, Lott says. Money is perhaps the biggest issue. Many school food directors, already operating under tight budgets, are hesitant to spend extra cash on new programs when it’s not guaranteed that students will eat the new menu options.
The USDA’s farm-to-school grant program — which provides extra funds to schools who work with local farmers — will help with those efforts because it will “provide a little seed money, no pun intended,” Lott says. Plus, farm-to-school programs already in place prove that students will eat healthy, local options, she says.
In Riverside, Calif., for example, all elementary schools offer a “fruit and vegetable choice bar” that dishes out locally-grown produce, and it’s been extremely successful. School meal participation is up in the district, and even teachers have started buying the meals, Lott says.
In public schools in St. Paul, Minn., officials have gone beyond fruits and veggies by offering meals made from locally-raised bison — which are available in hearty numbers in Minnesota — and hummus made from locally-grown chickpeas. “Farm-to-school can obviously be a very large spectrum of things,” Lott says.
Farm-to-school programs often go beyond just improving cafeteria meals, Lott says. Often, schools do a lot of education with their students, marketing the new products by explaining they come from local farms and even bringing farmers in to meet with the kids.
“With so many kids being obese or overweight… we’re obviously in a really challenging, and really important time, to make some changes,” she says. “So whatever we can do to get more healthful products into school lunches that kids will eat, I think it’s something we can’t afford not to do.”
Congratulations are in Order. Speaking of farm-to-schools, The Inside Track wants to give a shout- out to Chef Ann Cooper, who was named the National Resources Defense Council’s 2011 “Knowledge Winner” in its Growing Green Awards. NRDC noted that Cooper, nicknamed the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” started the Food Family Farming Foundation and worked with Whole Foods to fund more than 500 salad bars in schools.