When you think of school lunches, does your stomach automatically lurch as you remember the slop and resistance to healthy food that Jamie Oliver uncovered in West Virginia and California? Mine does.
That's why I was so surprised and delighted yesterday to hear about the Farm to School program run by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services during a panel discussion at the quarterly meeting of Advocates for Health in Action yesterday.
According to Marilyn Moody, Child Nutrition Services director for Wake County Public Schools, North Carolina is "ahead of most states in the country" when it comes to farm-to-school initiatives. What's the difference? The state takes the bidding and procurement headache away from the schools, delivering local, in-season produce to the schools. As the school's website says:
The program was set up by NCDA to benefit NC farmers and get more NC produce in school cafeterias. The state assumed the responsibility for all of the paperwork and meeting all the federal regulations. The state insures farms meet food safety requirements and carry appropriate insurance and then handles all purchasing, pick up and delivery.
The produce is harvested over the weekend and delivered on Monday mornings to schools. Each item is at its peak of ripeness. NC produce provided through the NC Farm to School program includes melons, many varieties of apples, strawberries, blueberries, sweet potatoes, cabbage and more. On Monday, WCPSS will receive a delivery of NC cantaloupe and watermelons that will be distributed to schools.
The farmers in the program contribute 50 cents for every case purchased to promote nutrition education. Last year, Wake County bought $100,000 worth of local produce, serving about 600,000 servings or 14 per student. Wake County has the 8th largest school system in the country.
Yes, only 14 serving of fresh local produce per student per year. But it's start! Heather Lifsey, Marketing Specialist for the NCDA&CS, is pulling out all the stops to promote eating local fruits and vegetables. She points out that North Carolina is the only state that picks up food from farmers and delivers it to the schools. She's working on a cookbook for cafeteria-scale cooking of fresh food, instructional videos to help cafeteria staff get the most out of the ingredients they receive, and even integrating farming examples into science education and other classes.
In a video about the Farm to School program shown before the panel started, a girl said she'd never tried a peach before, but that she'd liked the one she got at school. One of the panelist said that the students tend to be open to eating fresh produce but the parents sometimes are reluctant to try it.
Moody said that it can be hard to chose fresh produce in these tight economic times. An apple costs 22 cents and applesauce costs 11 cents. She's concerned that the quality of food is actually going backwards in the schools, which had improved in anticipation of new federal guidelines calling healthier meals. She runs the school lunch program "like a restaurant on school property." The $2 or $2.25 spent on lunch doesn't just cover the ingredients, it also pays employees, overhead charged by the county, and even forklifts. She asks, "Do you know how many 10-cent cookies we have to sell to pay for an $80,000 truck?"
While the state of North Carolina does fund the Farm-to-School Program, attendee Mary Bea Kolbe pointed out that it does not directly fund school lunches. That money comes from the federal government or from the money paid by the students for unsubsidized lunches. Kolbe asked why the state gives money for sports programs enjoyed by some but no money to help improve the nutrition of all the students. She asked participants to contact their legislators and county commissioners to ask that more money be invested in providing good food and good examples for our children.