More Local Farm Produce Going To Local Schools

Movement Gaining Ground, Workshop Participants Hear

August 02, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,

Sometimes the best questions come from the most unexpected places.

Take Doug Davis, a food expert who had been on his new job - planning menus at a Vermont public school - for only a few weeks when the woman who owned the orchard next door approached him.

"My apple trees are so close to the school, the apples fall right onto your playground," she said. "Why are the students being served apples from Oregon?"

Davis, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and industry veteran, stopped short. "I really don't know," he said.

The answer to her question - a Byzantine explanation involving the Defense Department and economies of scale - was less important than the fact it had to be asked.

Davis, an award-winning food service director, spent the next 18 years helping to grow a trend now bearing fruit across the country: the "farm to school" movement, a loosely organized if fast-growing campaign whose goal is to get locally grown food onto schoolchildren's trays.

"Farm to school is a complex mission with many working parts," Stew Eidel, a Maryland Department of Education official, told nearly 200 farmers, educators, food-service directors and parents at an Anne Arundel County workshop last week. "But it has one simple goal: to produce healthy kids."

Davis and Eidel were speakers at the Jane Lawton Farm to School Conference in Crownsville, a joint production of the state's agriculture and education departments. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly passed Senate Bill 158, a measure that created the Jane Lawton Farm to School Program.

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed it into law in May 2008.

Lawton, a former House delegate from Montgomery County, spent years campaigning to bring healthier food to Maryland cafeterias.

"She was always emphatic about getting junk food out of the schools," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation with Lawton before she died of a heart attack in 2007.

Here in Maryland and nationwide, the movement has one principal enemy: Getting food into schools is a lot more complicated than it looks.

Farmers must grow the food, organically or in mass; truckers haul it. Budget-conscious food-service directors choose menus; superintendents approve them. Legislators set broader budgetary priorities.

Over the past five decades, a system has evolved that favors mass purchasing, faceless ordering and the kind of preservative-laden, fat-rich foods many say have helped make American children obese.

"These problems have been developing for a long time," said Tegan Hagy of the Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that tracks farm-to-school movements across America. "You're not going to fix them overnight."

Creative thinkers, though, have made an impact, one that has grown since the modern movement began in about 1995 and that seems to be blossoming now. Davis' Vermont has emerged as a model in the field since he became the state's top food-services director in 2003.

His secret?

"Start small, and watch the growth," he said during an hourlong address.

He told of bringing local restaurant chefs into schools so his staff - accustomed to ladling food onto plates, assembly-line style - could see them chop and dice. Children saw the servers learning, he said, and grew curious, and when teachers and administrators bought into the idea, the subject of food became an organic part of the school day.

Meanwhile, he kept an eye out for local bargains. Upon learning that a local chicken farmer was throwing away drumsticks, he haggled a good price: $1.20 per pound, the same amount he'd been paying for processed chicken.

"The kids are still going nuts over those," he said. "It doesn't have to be expensive."

The state's inaugural venture came just 3 1/2 months after the law was enacted, when schools across the state celebrated the first Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week in September. Nineteen of 24 school systems participated, some adding local tomatoes, corn, apples and carrots to school meals, others inviting growers to schools to showcase their crops, still others offering courses on food.

"We want to teach kids that food doesn't grow in grocery stores," Raskin said. "It's part of an ecosystem, and the more they understand that, the more invested they become."

Brandishing a 6-foot cornstalk as a prop, Eidel told the group about his two daughters, who have grown up tending corn, beans and strawberries in the family's yard.

"They appreciate how much energy is required to raise a food-producing plant," he said.

Maryland comes fairly late, at least officially, to the farm-to-school movement, but Hagy of the Food Trust described its first homegrown lunch week as a resounding success.

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