Better School Food Equals More Local Farms

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Civil Eats

Better School Food Equals More Local Farms

by
Melissa Waldron Lehner

Last week, U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, unveiled the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which provides $4.5 billion in new child nutrition program funding over ten years. It says on Lincoln's website: "This legislation will also mark the first time since the inception of the National School Lunch Program that Congress has dedicated this level of resources to increasing the program's reimbursement rate."

Currently, the National School Lunch Program feeds nearly 31 million students every day for $9.3 billion per year. At the end of February, President Barack Obama proposed a $1 billion a year increase ($10 billion over ten years) in funding for U.S. child nutrition programs including school lunches. Sounds like a lot. But $1 billion, it turns out, really only boils down to an extra twenty cents per school meal. Right now, the reimbursement rate per meal is $2.68, and less than a dollar of that goes towards actual food. The rest is spent on infrastructure. Many school food advocates believe that serving wholesome, nutritious meals for under $3 is just not possible and there has been a rallying cry for more - up to a $1 more per child's meal.

Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, once told me if the USDA did nothing else than change the food served in schools, then he would be happy because "to change the school lunch program, USDA Secretary Vilsack will have to change the infrastructure that delivers the food to our schools and that will change the food system because it will provide many new opportunities for farmers to get food they produce to consumers, and I think that will encourage more of our young want-to-bes to begin farming."

That statement seems fairly profound - that by changing our school food we could actually change this nation's agricultural system by empowering local farms with local school dollars. So how exactly would an increase, if it actually happened, in the National School Lunch Program change or impact local farm production? Would biodiversity increase? Would commodity crops disappear to make room for more fruit and vegetables? How would the relationship between the schools and the farmers change?

Here are a few answers to those questions from leaders in the school food movement:

Chef Timothy Cipriano:

Yes, if schools trend to purchase more local seasonal products, I think this will shift the emphasis from corporate farms to more local farms. American public schools feed 31.5 million school lunches annually, this accounts for A LOT of food. This past year we already increased our local farm purchases to 48,000 pounds which includes things like 300 cases of apples (that's 12,000 lbs or 36,000 apples), 300 cases of pears, 75 cases of peaches, 100 cases of green beans, 100 cases of potatoes, and more than 6500 pounds of butternut squash, 400 pounds of tomatoes, 135 bags of corn, and quite a few cases of miscellaneous items such as cukes, eggplant, green and yellow squash, peppers, kale, and cabbage. We are working collaboratively with local community groups to start our own farm which will be split into a 5 acre educational farm where the students will grow whatever they want, and a 35-40 acre production farm where we will grow vegetables to serve in our schools. We will start with basic ingredients like tomatoes, onions, peppers, herbs, etc. to produce marinara sauce and salsa while we work with local processors to produce these in bulk for us to use in our schools. We are also looking to market and sell the marinara sauce and salsas in local stores to generate revenue for the farm. Currently we buy a lot from Connecticut farms but I would like to see more greenhouse crops offered year round. We could, with proper storage, move to serving exclusively local products, albeit processed and frozen. In addition, this $1 increase would also allow us the opportunity to run our business more efficiently, with up to date equipment that is Energy star rated or more green at least and utilizes less gas, electricity, etc. The payoff in the end is healthier children, cleaner air and a system that is not broken. I feel strongly that we are in the best shape ever when it comes to seeing real change happen with the USDA, The White House, and Congress all on a path to change. With the support of many organizations including School Nutrition Association, Food Research & Action Center, School Food Focus and others all working together as a team, we will see a real change very soon.

Tim Cipriano is the Executive Director of Food Services for New Haven Public Schools in New Haven, Connecticut and was just in Washington DC to attend the School Nutrition Association's Legislative Action Conference, and met with USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon and Chef Sam Kass, the Assistant Chef and Food Initiative Coordinator for The White House who is working directly with the First Lady on the Let's Move campaign.

Chef Ann Cooper:

History and experience tells me that we really need this additional $1 per child meal. The reimbursement rate is $2.86 but most of that goes for labor and equipment and only 90 cents or so is left, in LA its 96 cents. The extra $1 will put us at $3.70 per meal.

I have always advocated for fresh foods. Fresh foods, whole grains, kids need these things, whether it's a fresh mango in Florida or a fresh garbanzo bean in Minnesota. One major impact on farming will be that we will be taking commodity crops out of production and instead plant real food. The five top commodity crops in this country, corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton, we don't eat most of that. We need to grow more crops that we can actually eat. This $1 per child meal increase will most definitely increase biodiversity and increase the amount of crop land dedicated to real foods.

We won't be putting any farmer out of business who currently is growing all commodity crops. Farmers will be doing business in different ways. And we will be giving new opportunities to small farmers. Here in Boulder, Colorado, we are hoping to work with a farm that has 40 acres of productive land. We have 28,000 kids here, so 40 acres would make a huge difference and will produce a tremendous amount of what we need. Farmers often tell me we helped to save their farms. In New York, you have a more limited growing season but schools could help fill the gap from what a small farmer can earn at a farmers market. He or she can still participate in the farmers market but for instance the schools could buy that last 500 pounds of potatoes or carrots at the end of the season instead of going to waste.

Ann Cooper is the Renegade Lunch Lady, interim director of nutrition services at the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado and is the founder of TheLunchBox.org, a Web site that advocates healthier school lunches.

Debra Eschmeyer:

School meals are a vehicle for a healthier and wiser tomorrow exemplified by the Farm to School programs growing nationwide. Farm to school provides a snap shot of what our future food system should look like, not just local sustainable foods in the cafeteria, but complementary food, agriculture, and garden-based education within the classroom and community teaching children lifelong healthy eating habits. Currently, in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, we have strong bills in the Senate, S. 3123, and House, H.R. 4710, to support that would create a competitive Farm to School grant program, so more schools could start programs. As Representative Holt says, "Farm to school programs exemplify the best use of federal school lunch dollars.

Debra Eschmeyer is the Marketing & Media Manager of the National Farm to School Network and the Center for Food & Justice and works from a fifth-generation family farm in Ohio. She recently wrote about School Lunch Reform in The Huffington Post.

Anthony Geraci:

I've already made a commitment to buy locally - we are the first place to spend $1.5 million dollars this year on local produce, which is up from $25,000 last year. I buy local bread, I buy local milk, so combined I already spend $5.5 million on local foods total. I'd like to spend the other $8-10 million on protein like chickens. So waiting on someone in Washington to change the infrastructure for us, well we have decided to change it ourselves. They will be watching us very closely to see how we are doing it. We have great farms, we have great farmers. We want to put our dollars to use here, empower an atmosphere of biodiversity. Instead of just talking about things we want to do, we actually do them. And we have been doing them, and that is the story of success in the Baltimore program. It can't be perfect so let's just move forward with it and stop blaming it on everyone else. 1 in 3 kids born after the year 2000 will get diabetes type 2, 1 in 2 African American kids will get it. That is staggering. We can't keep pumping them full of fat and sugar and expect it to go away.

So here's the deal, let's take chicken for example. The government gives you the commodity in lieu of cash, chicken instead of money. By the time I can use it, it actually costs more than the local chicken. There are more chickens than people in the state of Maryland. Why am I buying chicken from Arkansas and having it shipped across the country, why can't I buy local chickens? I just left a meeting with the USDA and we are working on a project called Maryland's Best Brand, taking 5 crops that we grow well here - corn, green beans, tomatoes, peas, carrots. Rather than us putting money into shipping the food out of state, we are going to contract the farmers to grow our stuff. The farmer benefits and we create jobs around processing, we lower our operating costs and the tax dollars stay local. That's happening with or without the federal money. I caution my colleagues to not sit around and wait for money, it might not come. Our kids are hungry, so let's get off our butts and start working with our resources that we have right now, and if the money comes, that's awesome.

As Director of Food and Nutrition of Baltimore City Public Schools, Tony Geraci has ensured that more than 80,000 Baltimore students now have access to fresh fruits and vegetables every school day and founded the Great Kids Farm, a working organic farm and education center that trains future urban farmers and provides food for the school system's cafeterias.

Frederick Kirschenmann:

The industrial food system is now so concentrated and centralized that it makes it very difficult for farmers to obtain a fair share of the food dollar.  Farmers are essentially raw-material suppliers into a food chain that demands that food be "cheap."  But we do not have a cheap food policy; we have a cheap labor and raw materials policy.  And since farmers have no market power they always get squeezed at the end of the chain.  But the new emerging food demand is whole, fresh, food, produced in an environmentally sustainable manner and one which consumers have access to and can have a trusting relationship with.  A new infrastructure that would serve our school lunch programs would provide young farmers with a new opportunity to enter such relationships and be part of a new food system that gave the growing number of consumers what want to know where their food comes from what they want.

One of the big problems facing young farmers who want to grow food for people is transaction costs-the costs involved in getting food from field to table.   Right now there is little infrastructure in place to provide such services in an efficient manner.   Almost all infrastructure in place today is designed for undifferentiated commodity production-farmers can deliver bulk grain or livestock to grain elevators, or livestock sale barns or packing plants.  But there is little to no infrastructure for farmers to deliver food produced locally, and virtually no delivery system which could aggregate their production to deliver efficiently.   Farmers Markets and CSA's are their only options.   Food distribution companies like SYSCO are designed to deliver large quantities of food that can be picked up and delivered at centralized facilities. Some experiments are taking place to develop more localized distribution systems but the demand at the moment does not justify large expenditures.   So if the public school system were to develop such infrastructures farmers could then piggy-back on to them.   Of course, farmers would also need to aggregate by forming cooperatives or other business relationships and pool their production so that distribution companies could pick up product from one location instead of going to every farm-which becomes cost-prohibitive for them.  Increasingly health care institutions, like hospitals, are interested in buying fresher, whole foods from local farmers, but the distribution system is not in place for them to do so efficiently.

Fred Kirschenmann is the Distinguished Fellow of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and a third-generation organic farmer, who grew up on a farm in North Dakota and whose childhood diet subsisted on foods grown on their property.

Chef Bill Telepan:

It would be better than it is now - more farmers in the Northeast will stick around and not sell their land. I think the small farms will become the medium farms, and that's a good thing cause then there is more land being farmed. If we have more diverse products we wouldn't have these giant agrifarms that grow lettuce that gets bagged and shipped across the country. Really, we could use more colorful vegetables. When you think about the spectrum of colors, the different vegetables that are so colorful, you aren't seeing that in schools. So getting turnips, beets, celery root, veggies that kids don't know, would be huge. Why not Swiss chard or collard greens? Oh, and fresh corn. Even different kinds of potatoes - in fact, fresh potatoes would be a good start, not frozen French fries.

If we could get a dollar more per meal, I believe it would allow schools to have their suppliers buy more locally with more diversity. I really hope they can do something about the meat. Especially the beef. I would just love to see a real hamburger, for instance, that's not processed. A grass fed beef hamburger on a real bun and the kids would love it. Right now in school cafeterias, the meat they buy, in order to get a better yield out of it, they'll add cheaper stuff to it. So they'll make chicken nuggets with corn syrup and soy protein. The beef has soy protein added to it. So when you have a 3 oz hamburger you are actually only getting 1.5 oz of meat and the rest is filler. It's ok to use regular chicken, it doesn't have to be organic chicken, as long as it's just chicken and not ground up with processed stuff. I'd like to see more things on the menu that are healthy and simple - and serving a protein, a vegetable, a salad and a starch that are all made from scratch.

Bill Telepan, the Owner and Chef of Telepan restaurant in New York City and Board Member of Wellness in Schools, recently visited Washington DC as a member of NYC Alliance for CNR, asking members of Congress to consider an increase in the reimbursement rate for The National School Lunch Program.

Josh Viertel:

Nationwide, our schools serve more than 7 billion meals per year. That's enormous, unparalleled purchasing power. Just imagine if 10 percent of schools had the resources to make meals from unprocessed ingredients bought directly from local farms. That's an economic stimulus package that would completely transform farm economies and rural communities.

If Congress allocated $1 more per meal, schools would be able to buy more of the foods we see at farmer's markets: vegetables, fruit, pasture-raised meat and dairy. In addition to funding, we also need incentives so schools use their funds to buy real food.  With these incentives in place, farmers would be asked to grow more apples, carrots, lettuce, sweet potatoes - the kind of vegetables that are easy to cook in large quantities and that kids like to eat.

Increasing funding would enable more schools to cook meals from scratch and use whole ingredients. As a result, we'd see an increase in demand to grow the diverse mix of fruits and vegetables that make up a healthy diet and kids would change their behavior and appreciation of these foods over time.

If schools consistently bought locally grown food, farmers would be able to take advantage of this substantial market for their crops - and in some cases, wouldn't have to go through big national distributors. They'd have the security of knowing their crops will be sold, and the added benefit of saving money on marketing and retail packaging. In particular, this would be a boon for mid-sized farms that have the capacity to work with local school cafeterias and grow crops that match their needs.

Right now, farmers make about 19 cents of every dollar spent on food. The rest goes to marketing, distribution and processing. A farmer who sells directly to a school (or joins a cooperative that handles some of the distribution) will see a much bigger percentage of that dollar, because there are no middlemen.

As President of Slow Food USA, Josh Viertel launched Time For Lunch which asks citizens to sign their petition, contact their legislators and join Eat-In protest/potlucks across the country, demanding a good, clean, and fair food system for kids.

Melissa Waldron Lehner is the editor and publisher of the online e-zine Fertile Ground USA, where she writes about the latest trends and innovations in farming and food. She is the contributing producer for a regular radio series with Gourmet magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, which explores the politics of the plate along with the real meaning of food in our lives and how it has become intertwined with our sense of self. Melissa is the recipient of the 2006 James Beard Foundation/Viking King Range Broadcast Media Award for best Radio Food Show. She is also a freelance writer and contributor to the local foods magazine Edible Nutmeg, part of the Edible Communities consortium and SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Eduction non profit based in Washington DC.

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