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Revised Regs Help School Lunches Get Farm Fresh

Revisions to federal school lunch guidelines are helping schools bring more local food into their cafeterias.

Children helping themselves to locally sourced food at a school cafeteria in Ohio.

Getting Local On Lunch Trays

As summer vacation draws to a close, farm to school programs around the country are putting the final garnishes on new locally-sourced menus for the year ahead. But keeping lunch trays full of fresh produce from nearby farms can be an uphill battle, especially when parts of the new federal guidelines rolled out last year seemed better suited for procuring from big industrial producers than for small farms.

After a groundswell of complaints last year from parents and school officials about restrictions in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Families Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made a few key adjustments.

The guidelines are meant to help nourish more than 38 million kids every school day in a way that’s fair, healthy and economical. But measuring and standardizing the nutritional value of millions of lunch trays is a little simpler when your patties are portioned by machines from vats of processed beef — or when your navy beans and fruit cocktail come in clearly labeled, easy-to ship cans.

Extra Ingenuity

Chelsey Simpson, a spokesperson for the National Farm to School Network, said getting food from smaller farms and coping with variable crops takes some extra ingenuity.

“When you’re a school nutrition director trying to source local food for the cafeteria, there are additional challenges and opportunities around planning your menu. Not only do you have to work within the new USDA school meal guidelines, you also have to think about things like seasonality, for example, and whether it was a rainy season and maybe the watermelons aren’t ripe yet.”

Simpson said that while the new guidelines don’t mention local sourcing,
they do open the door to new ways to keep school menus fresh and healthy.

“Not only is it an opportunity to further the health message that’s so important to farm to school, but the new guidelines require more fruits and vegetable servings. So if more fruits and vegetables are being purchased everywhere in theory, then why couldn’t more of those be local?” Simpson said.

Simpson added that local sourcing only serves part of the group’s overall goals. She said nutrition education is a critical component, even if it just means that signage about local farmers and their crops gets posted in the cafeteria. She adds that classroom gardens can tie in to nearly any school curriculum, from math and science to history and literature.

According to the network’s website, more than 12,000 schools in 50 states participated in their programs during the 2011-2012 school year, with $13 million spent on locally purchased foods.

Flexibility Welcome

Andrea Early, the state lead for Virginia’s Farm to School Network who also serves as nutrition director for the Harrisonburg public school district, said her job is a little easier after the USDA removed caps on the amount of grain and protein schools can provide in lunches.

“One of the things we purchase in our division are local meats. And when you buy locally, they’re coming to you in a less processed form. You’re not getting, say, these perfectly portioned in a factory nuggets of meat that come with a label that says ‘this equals two ounces of protein.’”

Early said there are plenty of challenges left to tackle, including better distribution systems. Schools get a weekly delivery from the regular distribution truck even when they sourcing some foods locally. She said she’s looking for ways to incorporate local food deliveries into that system, and consolidate purchasing by going to local food auctions instead of buying from hundreds of individual growers.

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Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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