At the last Farm to Cafeteria Conference held in Detroit, Michigan last week, keynote speaker Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary for the Department of Agriculture reassured America that the health of our children is a top priority. Obesity prevention is a legitimate undertaking of the Obama Administration (specifically the cause of our First Lady) and it all starts with what you put on their plates in that multi-purpose room.
According to the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Project, the trailblazing most-successful program of its kind, enthusiastic food service and education is the key. Cooking and bringing enthusiasm to fresh produce should be the bridge that makes these children want to eat their veggies instead of loathe them. If there are willing sources of good nutrition, and schools in need, than what’s the problem? How come farm-to-cafeteria programs haven’t been institutionalized to a greater degree?
Delving into the National School Lunch Program and common school district policy may reveal answers. Consider the following truths (of which I’m sure many readers can think back to and remember): Lunch periods, especially in elementary schools, are usually limited to approximately twenty-five minutes. Labor is the largest expense in the food service industry.
Consequently, schools can only afford to buy pre-packed, frozen meals (fun fact: most school district vegetable plans include only ready-to-eat peas, sliced carrot pieces and shredded lettuce) instead of procuring fresh produce and actually cooking meals.
However, there are plenty of people championing for the cause. Take Chef Ann Cooper, dubbed fondly by the media as the Renegade Lunch Lady. She keeps up an amazing blog about her work to change the school lunches. Her dedication to what she calls the Food, Family, and Farm program have resulted in transforming Berkeley, California’s public school system from 95 percent processed foods to 95 percent hot meals made from scratch! In her latest blog entry she writes, “Might as well say it straight up: Kids don’t like vegetables…The chefs in Berkeley are sneaky. They load 125 pounds of fresh onions, carrots and celery into every batch of marinara sauce they make for their pizza and pasta. Could the solution to our national angst over getting kids to eat more vegetables possibly be mirepoix?”
The pairing is a win-win situation. What it starts with are two negative situations: the dying industry of individual/family based farms as well as the sub-par and often times unhealthy nutrition offered to children in America. Farm-to-school programs help alleviate both of these issues. Obviously, farm products are fresher, and you know what you’re getting which isn’t alwasy the case with processed foodstuffs. It also benefits these farms by giving them a new market and a connection to the communities. Also interesting to note is the atmosphere of equality high-quality food brings to these public schools. Families of all incomes and all backgrounds attend public schools and being able to have access to the same food every school day is a considerable form of social justice.
If you serve it, they will come.
To read the full Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Report, funded by the USDA as well as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, click here.