Smarter Living: Schools
Leaders of the Pack: Farm-to-School Programs Feed Kids Across the Country
Photo: Trip Sullivan. Pictured: Marcus Mosley, Alicia Joyner and Tim Wright.
Quietly, whether in rural communities or large cities, schools are finding novel ways to feed kids healthier, locally grown food, often cultivated by the children themselves as part of the curriculum. You might picture this as the province of wealthy school districts only, but the hundreds of farm-to-school programs across the country include places like the Baltimore public schools, where over 83% of the students qualify for free- and reduced-rate meals.
For many kids, this may be their only nutritious meal of the day. Many of the programs are economically viable, and their educational benefits go well beyond healthy eating. Tony Geraci, Baltimore’s dynamic Food Services Director and an architect of the nationwide farm-to-school movement, says, “The product you’re trying to produce isn’t food on a tray. It’s healthy kids ready to learn. The other billions of dollars we’re spending on teachers, books, buses—if they can’t absorb a lesson plan, it’s wasted.”
In the early 1990s, when Child Nutrition Program Director Melanie Payne banned fried foods from the school cafeterias in Opelika, Alabama, she wasn’t thinking about local foods yet. “We did it for selfish reasons early on,” she admits; they could get government reimbursements for serving a “nutrient-based” diet. From there, Payne worked with school cooks to ditch the traditional ham hocks and bacon for flavoring and try spices and herbs instead.
The Opelika schools now have a reputation as a place that will buy from local farmers: butter beans, peas, tomatoes and especially greens and sweet potatoes. A big part of what makes it work is their association with the New North Florida Cooperative Association, one of eight regional agencies in the National Farm to School Network linking farmers and food services to get local produce into schools. “We don’t have the labor to actually process products from harvest,” says Payne. “For instance, for collard greens, we need them to be prewashed and chopped. Sweet potatoes come in to us peeled and cut, so all we have to do is cook them.” Success with Opelika has spread to more collaborations. Last fall, 25 area school districts ordered green beans together. Local farmers planted accordingly to fill the order, and after the harvest, the cooperative processed the beans.
last revised 4/26/2011