Better School Food Equals More Local Farms

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
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, 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

Bill Telepan, the Owner and Chef of Telepan restaurant in New
York City and Board Member of Wellness in Schools,
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

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