As farmers struggle to mitigate the increasing cost of transporting produce from farm to store and schools face smaller budgets and increasing concerns over the nutritional content of school lunches, some schools opt to bring the farm to the lunch table.
The concern over the nutritional value of school lunches isn't unwarranted: 15% of children ages 6-19 are considered overweight, according to a recent study conducted by CDC epidemiologist Cynthia Ogden, PhD. Between pre-packaged, highly processed lunches and vending machines loaded with sugary snacks and sodas, it is little wonder parents also worry about fueling their kids' minds. Many are asking the schools to do more, pointing out that the National School Lunch Program isn't passing muster.
Nearly half of the children in the U.S. who attend private and public schools participate in the NSLP, a federally assisted meal program that dates back to 1946. While the NSLP does provide a low-cost (and in some cases, free) means of delivering lunch through subsidies to schools, the program has been widely criticized in recent years for contributing to America's obesity epidemic. According to the Sustainable Table, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about the problems with our food supply, our children are not meeting the RDA of vitamins and nutrients under the current NSLP guidelines. Couple that with the skyrocketing price of food, which extends beyond the family table to the school cafeterias as well. Forced to consider lower-priced alternatives to fresh foods, many schools have no alternative but to rely on the cheaper, less healthy fare. A number of districts across the country are taking matters into their own hands and breaking the mold. Instead of doling out sodium and fat-laden chicken nuggets for lunch, they are opting to assist local farmers and provide healthier, locally grown foods to students.
Eating and Learning: Models of Success
In the small community of Glen Lake, Michigan the farm-to-school program gives local schools an opportunity to sample tasty, healthy meals grown with as many locally grown products as possible. Not only is this a great opportunity for the children to develop an appreciation for locally grown food, studies show that children who are fed healthier, more nutrient rich foods are better learners. Michigan's program is a prime example of how school districts can assist local growers and simultaneously teach students about the health and economic benefits of consuming local produce.
Schools in Berkeley, California, have become a national model for how to make schools more sustainable. The Edible Schoolyard Project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School takes the farm-to-school concept one step further: the students use their school's organic garden as a learning tool. Students learn about planting and harvesting, cooking and eating, and biology, ecology, nutrition and sustainability. This program has become so successful that many schools around the country now have their own gardens. The National Gardening Association (http://www.kidsgardening.org/School/sea...) has a list of thousands of school gardens nationwide.
Students at the Louisa May Alcott elementary school in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood savor daily lunches dished up by local chef, Greg Christian. Christian runs the nonprofit Organic School Project, through which he donates half of his time and salary to a grand mission: seeing that Chicago students eat better. Nearby schools will be added to the OLP, with further plans to build teaching gardens at each school.
There is more good news: The National Farm to School program, a national network of community-based food systems that assist farmers and improve student health, estimates that more than 2,000 Farm to School Programs are currently underway in the U.S., with more than 8,700 schools actively participating.
HOW TO START A FARM TO SCHOOL PROGRAM
(from The National Farm to School Program website)
1. Research: Read the publication Going Local to acquaint yourself with model farm to school programs from across the country. As Farm to School programs come in many shapes and sizes, it's important to begin to identify what you want and what would work best in your school. Visit www.farmtoschool.org to learn if there is a program in your area.
2. Organize: Coordinate a group of cross-sector stakeholders in the community for a meeting to discuss farm to school (food service directors, parents, teachers, farmers, students, school administration, local nonprofits, etc.) Inspire potential supporters with an activity such as a farm tour or a farm-fresh taste test.
3. Assess: Facilitate conversations with various stakeholders to determine the feasibility of the program in your area—discuss where to buy local foods, assess how to serve them at school, identify staff or volunteers to support the program, and determine what the budget for your program can be.
4. Plan: Create a short description of your ideal program and then list specific first steps. Tip: start with easy wins! Try to limit this to five steps to help you organize and communicate your goals to others.
5. Start: Take small steps such as working with one or two whole products that are easy to process and popular among kids. Local apples, oranges, or strawberries are a good choice when they are in season.
What are you waiting for? Plant the seeds of farm to school!