As I write this, the day's far from over at the American Public Health Association's annual conference "Public Health Without Borders," but my brainpower is fading fast. Before I give up on knowledge intake and shift to taking in some of the great local San Diego eats suggested by readers, I'll share a few highlights from today's sessions, two of which focused on food in U.S. public schools.
As many others know far better than I do, the school food system is dogged by a brutal combination of forces: Chronic underfunding and a ground-and-air assault by food companies desperate to get their products in front of impressionable kids. Think a Domino's stand in the cafeteria, or the Coke machine near the restrooms. In many ways, school food has gone the way of U.S. food generally; it's increasingly highly processed and low quality, delivered to schools ready to be reheated and served. (See more info on the meat side of the story in this post.)
That's one reason that healthy-food and sustainable-ag advocates were so thrilled by a win they scored in the 2008 Farm Bill: Schools are now officially allowed to exercise geographic preference — in other words, source locally — in school food programs without fear of getting blasted for being anti-competitive. Allowing schools to show a preference for local foods opens up the possibility of bringing more fresh, local, minimally processed food to school cafeterias across the nation. The first session I attended today was organized to share lessons from the farm-to-school movement and to explore next steps.
Slicing and dicing
The first speaker, Mel Rader of Oregon's Upstream Public Health, led things off with a sobering message: The federal policy's passage was hugely important, but simply having it in place is far from sufficient. Schools still have only $1.13 per child to spend on each lunch, hardly enough to get all wild n' crazy. He noted, though, that local foods are often no more expensive than those coming from big distributors like SYSCO, in part because the supply chain is so much shorter. So price is not always the barrier it's purported to be.
What is a major barrier is that cafeteria facilities have declined along with school foods. As one food policy advocate said to me, "You give a school a bunch of lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes and tell them to make a salad. And you won't get one — they literally don't have the cutting boards." Mel put it this way: "Making this thing work will require reinventing the school kitchen." Most are set up to do little more than peel off some tin foil and stick a tray in the oven to be reheated.
So what does that mean? It means that the farm-to-school movement has a big job ahead of it, working together with the nutrition community. Schools don't just need more money, though they certainly need that. They need more money earmarked for infrastructure to build facilities that can actually function as kitchens, not just as glorified microwaves. And they need more funding and training for staff to learn how to take raw ingredients — whole, healthy ingredients — and turn them into things that kids can eat. Actually, we could all probably use some of that education.
To everything, turn, turn, turn
The next two speakers provided case studies of successful farm-to-school programs in Berkeley, CA, and the state of Michigan. In both places, students showed the greatest appreciation for fresh fruits and vegetables when they could participate from the ground up — learning about how they grew, how they're cooked, and, of course, how to eat them.
The Michigan researcher, affiliated with the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems, mentioned that a great way for schools to save money was to take advantage of what she called "opportunity buys" — times in the season when farmers have surpluses they need to unload. Turns out that eating with the seasons makes sense not just for the land and for farmers, but also for schools' bottom lines.
That began the most interesting part of the discussion for me. Seasonality is great, said one member of the audience, but in most parts of the country, the season of bounty is summer, when schools aren't in session. So what do we do about that?
One option, said a panel member, is for schools to follow the lead of many home-preservers and put things by. In Oregon, one school district bought berries when they were coming out farmers' ears and froze them to use all winter. But that requires having the infrastructure and the training to be able to preserve food on a pretty large scale, something most schools are not equipped to do. One Chicago food-service worker told of picking apples with students, making jelly, and canning it only to find that food safety laws prohibited them from actually serving it: "We've got 200 jars of apple jelly sitting in the kitchen. Can someone tell me how to fix this?"
Another option suggested by panelists was investing in local farmers so that they can build basic infrastructure to extend the growing season (see a great post from Tom Philpott on passive solar greenhouses and other infrastructure here). And of course, the Michigan researcher pointed out, local food doesn't only mean fruits and vegetables. Many Michigan farmers grow small grains, meat, dairy, eggs... many of which schools can buy during the winter.
The next frontier
After the panel, one audience member suggested yet another target for the farm-to-school movement: Summer feeding programs. Summer camps with a large enough population of low-income attendees are eligible to receive federal funding for meals. These institutions are perfect candidates for farm-to-school partnerships, but no one I spoke with was working on it. I'd love to know if the farm-to-school community has started taking this on, getting the summer harvest into the hands of camp-goers across the nation.
It's been a bounty of knowledge, that's for sure, and I'm feeling pretty sated. More tomorrow!