Dispatch from APHA: Seeding local food in schools

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!

Image: iStockphoto

7 Responsesto “Dispatch from APHA: Seeding local food in schools”

  1. Emily says:

    Maybe we're focusing on the wrong place to fix this problem. True, individual school kitchens may only have an oven in a closet to serve as a "kitchen," but maybe the school district's central kitchen facility is better-equipped? Schools have spent years centralizing their lunch operations - it will be very difficult to change that now. So maybe we should focus on working within the structure that already exists. To that end, it would also be helpful to have more local processing facilities. If we could turn the local lettuce and carrots into local bagged salad mix, which the schools are used to using, local produce consumption would soar. (Note that "processing" here means "washed and cut up," not "mac-n-powdered cheez.") And instead of fixing one (drastically understaffed and underfunded) school building at a time, building a regional food processing center could serve any number of local schools, universities, prisons, restaurants, hotels...

  2. The problem with this is that the government passed a law requiring that farmers participate in the USDA's "voluntary" National Animal Identification System (NAIS) in order to offer food to schools. This is the classic mafia voluntary tactics. Join or else.

  3. Julie says:

    Personally I think parents need to take a lot more responsibility for what their children eat, whether it's what they take to school for lunch (as is often the case here in Western Australia) or buy at the canteen. We have a voluntary Star Canteen Accreditation Program (StarCAP), which encourages schools to promote and sell healthy foods through a combination of recognition and rewards. There is a strong emphasis on training for relevant school staff. Government regulations also stipulate a "traffic light" system for foods: GREEN foods (such as fruit and wholegrain bread) should dominate canteen menus; AMBER foods (such as muffins and snack food bars) should be limited and carefully chosen; RED foods (such as soft drinks or sodas and deep fried foods) are banned from public schools. Don't know if any of this is relevant to the American system, given your canteens operate differently, but these measures do help parents make better choices, as well as educate children.

  4. Sarah B says:

    Another thought: We need more relationships with farmers producing directly for the schools.  Our former Food Service director worked in Louisville--she said if she wanted local strawberries for the school district, she would end up buying the whole supply for the area.  That sounds like a growth opportunity to me!

  5. aliza says:

    farm to camp!

  6. Joe says:

    The article notes that seasonality is out of phase with school's demand periods.    This is absolutely NOT true if one is speaking of meat and dairy - however, the local foods movement at this stage seems to be somewhat dominated by veg-centric folks.  Perhaps this is a sign of where we are this point in the movement, with momentum built significantly by the farmers market surge.  One piece of the infrastructure that is missing is the local meat processing plant that has USDA-level inspection that can sell into institutions such as school districts.
    As the owner of a small USDA-level inspected meat plant in rural Virginia, who is also an approved Sysco vendor, I can tell you that there is a great opportunity for small plants such as mine.  They pretty much don't exist anymore, yet they are incredibly important to achieve the goals of the local food movement.  Within a 90 minute drive of my plant, there are at least 8 or 10, possibly more, colleges and universities with food service programs.  The administrations of many of these schools have publicly pledged to serve up 35% local food content in the cafeterias on campus in the next few years.  In my opinion, they have no chance of achieving this goal at the present moment.  The vegetable processing infrastructure in practically non-existent, and no one is approaching me directly on the meat side.  We do process for a few farmers who sell some meat directly to local university food systems.
    Plants such as mine can help these school systems achieve their goals.  The economics are very challenging, and the transportation and communications issues just as much so.  However, it can be done.   Communication is the key, and the committment to working in partnership.  It is not enough to just stop ordering from the Sysco truck, and buy from a local farmer.  The chefs have to be prepared to spend the time it takes to understand the changes required to adapt the system, from menu preparation, to cooking techniques, to learning how to use the whole animal.  If you are connected with school food programs, take the time to go out and TALK to your pocessor!  It is a very different process than dialing the nearest Sysco warehouse.  And it will go a long way to supporting local agriculture, putting fresh healthy food on student's plates,  and keeping food dollars in your community.

  7. Sasha says:

    Hi Elanor, not sure if you or any other readers caught Robert Kuttner's interview on Fresh Air or have had a chance to see his new book. However, during the interview he made an interesting point that might be another useful way to approach this "problem" (which is very significant as many of the anecdotes attest to). He suggested that one key strategy that Obama should pursue as part of an economic recovery effort is to professionalize parts of the service work force. He specifically was talking about child care jobs, nursing, and elder care jobs, but I think there is an opportunity to expand that.
    There are numerous programs around the country that seek to use culinary arts training as a vehicle for self-improvement and job-training, particularly with homeless individuals and occasionally youth. While there some obvious criticisms that can be raised against these programs, there is something to be said for linking the need for better vocational training programs and the clear deskilling of public school food service workers. We need "infrastructure" which means the cutting boards, but also people who know how to handle 55 lbs of carrots and potatoes. And with the seeming collapse of large parts of our retail economy on the horizon many of the current "low-skill" jobs in this economy are about to dry up. Connect the dots and we have yet another strong economically grounded argument for policy intervention into this area.
    Of course we still have the thorny problem of public school funding being embedded in a policy process that is dominated by big corporate ag. interests...but this would clearly be an approach with tremendous local appeal beyond just the obvious healthier kids, happier farmers argument. More jobs with actual skills that might be useful for folks...