Organic Produce Goes to School

girl with corn

Photo by Jason Houston

Loaded onto fifth-grader Cameron Landry's blue plastic lunch tray are signs of a quiet revolution taking place in schools across the country. Missing are the brownies, french fries, and cookies that have become standard ingredients of public school lunches. Here at Lincoln Elementary in Olympia, Washington, organic salad greens, a fat bunch of purple grapes, and a pile of carrots crowd around a taco.

Landry, an 11-year-old with a mess of curly blond hair wearing a clip-on tie with a t-shirt, doesn't complain about the lack of sweets. Instead, he actually says he likes getting the variety of food and choices.

“I eat breakfast and lunch at school, and this is pretty different than what I'm used to getting at home. It's much healthier,” he says as he loads up his taco with cucumbers from the bin marked with a student-created “organic” sign. “I like it. This way we're not getting hyped up on sugar, sweets, and stuff.”

This may sound unexpected from a member of the demographic for whom Happy Meals were created, but in schools across the country, children are gobbling up more fresh vegetables and fruit at lunch due to a grassroots movement referred to by parents, farmers, and teachers as “farm-to-school.”

Started in 1996 in one Santa Monica, California, school and another in the Florida panhandle, the movement has since exploded. In 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture funded nine different universities and nonprofits throughout the country to jumpstart other farm-to-school programs. The groups set up pilot projects at different schools, conducted evaluations of what worked, and then used the information to train parents, farmers, and food service providers on how to create a farm-to-school program in their own communities.

Today, more than 400 school districts in 23 states use regional fresh produce at school lunches, reaching an estimated 750,000 children. While limited research has been conducted on the impact on obesity or increased attention in the classroom, studies show that students have increased their fruit and vegetable servings by 25 percent.

For parents and activists that leap is significant in an era when children nationwide are experiencing an epidemic of obesity. Today more than 15 percent of all U.S. children are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Simultaneously, by purchasing produce directly from local growers and not multinational corporations based in, say, Mexico, the farm-to-school movement aims to conquer another troubling trend in American food production and consumption. For while children are getting fatter, family farmers are experiencing lean times: 22 percent of farmers have incomes below the poverty level, according to most recent statistics. Due in large part to such financial challenges, America is losing its small-scale farmers at a dizzying pace. Yet in small lunchrooms like Landry's, lunch trays heavy with fresh, healthy food offer hope: farm-to-school programs increase farmers' incomes by an average 15 percent.

“Kids and farmers are both vulnerable populations; this is a way to meet the needs of both and benefit both groups,” says Marion Kalb, director of the national farm-to-school program for the non-profit Community Foods Security Coalition, one of the groups involved from the movement's beginning. Most adults find canned green beans unappetizing, and so do kids, she notes. “Overall the strength of the program is that produce from farms tastes good.”

Paul Flock, the food services supervisor for the Olympia School District, points to an unplugged and abandoned deep fryer in the back of the Olympia High School kitchen and jokingly asks if I know anyone who needs one. A 20-year veteran in food services, Flock says that school lunch wasn't always such a nutritionist's nightmare. Through years of budget cuts for education, school districts have looked to school lunch as a way to make money. To that end, cafeterias started to sell food they knew kids would buy, such as chicken nuggets, french fries, and cookies. “We were advocating unhealthy food choices to make a dollar,” says Flock.

Today, Flock buys hundreds of pounds of produce from eight different regional farmers. It's not cheap—compared to the 90 cents/pound he used to pay for chopped iceberg lettuce, Flock now spends $5/pound for a leafy mix of endive, radicchio, and leaf lettuce. To subsidize this increased budget, Flock stopped buying desserts and eliminated a contract with Domino's Pizza. A grant from the Washington Department of Agriculture helps to make up the financial difference.

A growing chorus of national experts says spending the extra money up front benefits society in the long term.

“If you have unhealthy kids, you're going to have unhealthy adults, and there will be huge monetary costs to society,” says Marion Nestle, author of the award-winning book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. “This program fills a gap that the government really ought to be involved in. But the government's hands are tied because it's sold out to big business. So people are taking things into their own hands.”

Where good food comes from

Just a few miles down the road from Olympia High School, sprightly tomato plants and green onions dance in the light wind that blows through the Kirsop Farm's broad fields.

“This fresh organic produce is as good as it gets,” says farm co-owner Colin Barricklow, grinning beneath a broad straw hat. “It seems like this is what kids should be eating.”

For the past three years, Kirsop has delivered hundreds of pounds of potatoes and squash to the Olympia schools five times a season. While the farm also sells to local co-op grocery stores and directly to consumers through farmers' markets and subscription shares, known as community-supported agriculture, selling to the district has provided something often elusive for small farmers: a stable market and a steady demand where prices can be negotiated up front. Such sales have spelled the difference between success and failure for many new farmers in the area, says Barricklow's wife, Genine Bradwin.

As she walks down a long row of potatoes, she adds that maintaining farms like theirs in a community where subdivisions threaten to gobble up open space is also an important cultural element.

“Most parents want farms in the community so their kids can see where their food comes from and can experience the ideal of a farmer with a pitchfork standing in the field,” she says. “If a cafeteria gets its food from California or Mexico, it doesn't support that vision or experience.”

Helping to sustain small farmers helps the entire community to thrive financially, says Judith Redmond, board president of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, a California nonprofit based in Davis. Family farmers, she explains, spend most of their money locally for supplies, such as seeds and tractor parts, which is why studies have shown that every dollar a farmer earns generates $10 in the local community.

 “Keeping the local economy moving is something very clearly done by farm-to-school,” says Redmond, while on lunch break from working at the organic farm she owns and runs. “Several hundred thousand dollars of produce have already been sold by farmers to Ventura schools in just a few months of this season,” she notes. “It's very exciting.”

Despite the program's remarkable successes, there remain challenges. Many schools no longer have the infrastructure to wash or chop fresh produce. Often, school districts distribute heated, pre-made, processed food from centralized kitchens.

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, signed by President Bush in June 2004, promised to help schools or nonprofits develop infrastructure and conduct research necessary to provide local produce for lunch. As of spring of 2005, the act has yet to receive any funding. Such money would make a critical difference in reaching additional school districts and, more importantly, changing the culture of school lunch.

Yet even with fledgling budgets, the cadre of educators, parents, and farmers who have helped the farm-to-school programs take root say they are dedicated to making the movement grow and flourish. For Lincoln Elementary's principal, Cheryl Petra, providing children with fresh fruits and vegetables is central to her job as an educator.

“We have a mandate to take care of our children. One way to do that is to feed them well,” says Petra. As she folds her long legs under a child-sized table in the cafeteria, Petra simultaneously gives one child a hug and asks another to stop yelling. “We're the wealthiest nation in the world—it shouldn't be revolutionary to think about what we feed our children. We're the adults and we need to provide food that nourishes out children. It's the right thing to do.”


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