Smarter Living: Schools

When it comes to child health and nutrition, no single issue has garnered more attention for the past two years than school food. First Lady Michelle Obama has moved far beyond her White House garden, asking processed food manufacturers to cut the sugar, fat and salt in their heavily marketed products, telling restaurants to make healthy options more appealing, and asked food companies to remove 1.5 trillion calories from foods and beverages.

Yet her pioneering efforts seem to have gone unnoticed by Congress, where the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act passed in the Senate, giving school food programs a whopping 6-cent increase per child, but has since stalled in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 18.8 percent of children aged six to eleven and 17.4 percent of those aged 12 to 19 years are considered overweight, an approximately 14 percent increase from the early '70s. And it's very likely that school lunch programs are feeding this problem. A study published earlier this fall in the Journal of Human Resources (pdf) found that children participating in the National School Lunch Program were more likely to be overweight or obese than children who don't participate.

School districts around the country, however, are finding creative ways to cope with the pressure of feeding children healthy meals with limited resources. And a growing number are echoing the trend of buying direct from the farmer with Farm to School Programs, which now operate in 46 states.

You Say Potatoes, I Say Organic Baby Spinach

The Saratoga Springs City School District in upstate New York started planning its Farm to School Program in 2006, and it officially got off the ground in 2007, says the district's school lunch program director, Margaret Sullivan. "It was something I wanted to do," she says. "We're surrounded by so many local farms and all this beautiful farmland. I thought, maybe if we didn't support it, we wouldn't have it that much longer."

Initially, she focused on getting local apples and potatoes, but now she says she gets around 20 percent of the school's produce from local farmers during the height of the growing season. One of her suppliers grows various lettuces and greens indoors during the winter months, but for the most part, from November to May, she orders from an outside vendor.

Her district feeds 6,800 students at 8 schools in an area that's attractive to tourists. Just 15 to 16 percent of her students get free or reduced-cost lunches. Overall, she gets $2.78 to feed each child breakfast and lunch, and the economy has made additional funding hard to come by. "The first year, we were able to get $40,000 for the program, but this year, because of the economy, we don't expect to get anything," she notes. But she's able to figure out a workaround in order to make the produce more affordable. "The local farmers needed a winter [farmer's] market location, and they expressed some interest in using one of the local school buildings," she says, "so we worked out a partnership." Now the farmers collectively donate $9,800 worth of produce each month to the school district as their "rent."

Ironically, she says, one of the biggest difficulties she's had in keeping her program operating is competition—from the local community. "In this area, most of the farmers sell through the local farmer's markets, and they're very well attended," she says. "They also sell to local restaurants and didn't actually need my business." That makes it hard to negotiate prices the school district can afford. "I’m asking for deals on organic baby spinach, but some restaurant down the road is using the same potatoes, the same organic baby spinach, and serving it for $70 a plate."

But she attributes the program's ultimate success to the support of about five to six dedicated farmers with whom she works most closely. "The ones that deal with us the most understand that it's more about selling food," she says. "They're a part of the community. They have a philosophy, too, that it's not just money."

Going Local One Watermelon at a Time

A little to the south and west of Saratoga Springs, the school district governing Shawnee, Oklahoma, has tried to implement a Farm to School Program with a little less success but with no less dedication. The Shawnee School District covers a town of 40,000 people, and Deborah Taylor, RD/LD, SNS, director of Shawnee School Nutrition Services, says she feeds 4,000 kids at six schools.

"Shawnee was one of the first districts that worked with the USDA and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture when they first started looking into farm to school programs back in 2001," Taylor says. "Those of us who were involved really liked the idea of this being a more rural state and having lots of farmers, and serving those things in our schools."

"We've worked really hard on this as a state," she adds, "but the real problem is getting actual food into schools. In theory, it ought to be real easy." With Oklahoma's growing season reaching its height in mid-summer, when kids aren't in school, it's hard to simply find farmers who can provide produce in the quantities she needs by the time school gets back in session, she says. When school finally does gear up, farmers aren't inclined to drive the long distances required to deliver produce at each school. And then, of course, is the reality of farming. "I know that I have 425 kids and need 380 lunches, and I need 380 servings of cherry tomatoes," she says, "but if the farmer only ended up with 50 servings, then I need to figure out if my chef can integrate that into what she's doing."

Supply chain logistics, she adds, has been the most difficult part of keeping the program going. "It's been a little frustrating to work really hard with a farmer, and think you've got things lined up, and just not get a phone call when you're expecting food."

Money, too, poses challenges, particularly when working with smaller farmers. In Shawnee, 80 percent of the kids get free or reduced-cost meals, and Taylor has $2.67 to spend every day. "Schools are poor," she laughs, "and in schools, we count pennies." For lunch, for instance, she has $1.25 to spend on milk, two servings of fruits and vegetables, and two servings of whole grain breads. Because she's a registered dietician by training, she's not willing to compromise on the whole grains, which cost 20 cents compared with just 6 if she opted for white bread. "But a family farmer wants to sell me an heirloom tomato that would cost 75 cents per tomato, and they don't have the money to give it to me at a discount. We have two different poor groups: one needs to make money, and I need to watch how I spend my money."

Even so, she's found innovative ways to work the system so her kids can get local foods and learn the value of supporting agriculture. One year, she partnered with a local vineyard owner who made her popsicles from the concord and the Zinfandel grapes they were growing to make wine. The children enjoyed them, but because the area is lower income, many couldn't afford the price she needed to charge to break even. Another year, she found a pork farmer who was interested in selling her sausage, so she ordered a year's worth to serve the children at breakfast. "Kids in Oklahoma love sausage gravy and biscuits, so I serve it one day a week," she says. But that farmer realized that farming wasn't really his calling and he didn't contact her again the following year.

Two successes she has had have been with watermelon and pizza. Oklahoma has a full-time Farm-to-School coordinator who was able to connect Taylor with a nearby watermelon farmer with whom she could place her orders in April. He plants seedless watermelon according to what she needs so that, come fall, her students can eat Oklahoma-grown fruit. In another serendipitous moment, she learned that the small family business in Texas that assembled the pizzas she sold her schools was using whole wheat from an Oklahoma Wheat Coop, and now all the whole wheat pizza crusts she serves are made with local wheat.

"I do think the local farmer and family farmer, and even the big farmers are important, and we need to support that," she says. "And if you don't keep trying, then nothing happens."

Learn More

Leaders of the Pack: Farm-to-School Programs Feed Kids Across the Country 

Alice Waters: Chef, Healthy School Lunch Crusader

Lessons From the Lunch Lady

"Food and Farming in Obama's First 100 Days" by Michael Pollan, OnEarth

The National School Lunch Program: Time for a Makeover!

Which Meals are Fast, Cheap, Green and Nutritious?

Recipe: Purple Power Smoothie

Recipe: Popcorn Soup

Recipe: Rice and Berry Pudding

last revised 4/26/2011

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