Saturday, December 29, 2007

VEGETABLES OF MASS DISTRACTION: More than you ever wanted to know about the Federal School Lunch Program

Use the Daily News LAUSD lunch database to see how many students were enrolled in the free and reduced cost lunch program by local district or school between 2004-2006.


Vegetables of Mass Destruction - Farm to School Programs

by: Orangeclouds115 | Truth&

Nov. 18, 2007 — Nobody wants their kids tossed around as political footballs, and yet, when it comes to school lunch, that's the case. On the right correct side of the politics of school lunch are those who care about climate change, conservation, hunger, and childhood obesity.

The other side consists of those who profit when our children get fat: companies that sell junk, people who abhor allocating tax money to schools, and makers of high fat commodities that lobby the government to buy their products for the national school lunch program.

Caught in the middle are the schools. They must meet federal nutrition guidelines, please the kids and parents, and do it all while counting their pennies because they've only got about $1 per meal per kid (according to this article). Add to that the fact that budget constraints made many schools scrap their kitchens a long time ago. Oy vey.

The Laws
If you check out this PDF, you'll find the laws governing school lunch nutrition:

  • School lunches must provide 1/3 of the Recommended Daily Allowances for:
    • Protein
    • Vitamin A
    • Vitamin C
    • Iron
    • Calcium
    • Calories

  • School breakfasts must provide 1/4 of the nutrients listed above.
  • No more than 30% of the calories in school lunches and breakfasts may come from fat.
  • Less than 10% of the calories in school lunches and breakfasts may come from saturated fat.
  • Other foods sold in schools are not subject to the rules above (including foods sold a la carte or in vending machines).
    • These foods may not be "Foods of minimal nutritional value" (i.e. Less than 5% RDA per serving for 8 key nutrients) if they are sold in food service areas during meal periods. However, even those regulations do not apply elsewhere in the school at all times.
    • Schools are required to have a "wellness policy" including nutrition guidelines for these foods.

The same PDF cites a number of studies that show that school children eat more fruits, veggies, and other healthy foods when junk is less available (and vice versa). As you might expect, the studies also show a correlation between the children's BMIs (body mass indexes) and the availability of junk food at school.

The Budget
In order to meet the criteria above with the budget they're given, schools must work miracles. According to this article about barriers to bringing local foods into Seattle schools, schools have between $2.20 - $2.70 per student per meal (the difference depends on whether the student qualifies for the federal free lunch program or not).

Of that money, 4% goes for equipment and supplies and 59% goes to labor, leaving only 37% for the food itself. Translation: Seattle schools have only $1 per student per meal in the best case scenario.

The $1 breaks down as follows: $.45 for the entree, $.22 for milk, $.10-$.15 for vegetables, $.10 for fruit, and $.10 to $.20 for bread and/or dessert. If you've been to a farmers' market lately, you probably know what you'd get if your fruit and veggie budgets were about $.10 apiece. NOT MUCH.

If you haven't been to a farmers' market, here's an idea of what you'd pay there. I'm used to paying about $2.49/lb for organic apples, $1 for an eggplant or a bunch of beets, $1 for a bag (5 oz.) of spinach, $5 for 3 pints of strawberries when they are in peak season (double that otherwise), $3 for 4 lbs of organic oranges, and $2 for a cantaloupe.

Farmers selling to stores receive lower prices than they do at farmers' markets, so there's some hope that a school district could get a deal since they'd be buying food in bulk - but would that bring the price down enough?

Not only that, but about $.20 of each child's meal comes from free commodities. Free to the school, that is. The federal government buys them and provides them to the school lunch program as a subsidy to farmers. What local farmer can compete with free? (Unfortunately, although some of the free commodities may come from local farms, the government doesn't coordinate to send those foods to nearby schools).

More Barriers to a Farm to School Program
If the budgetary concerns raised above aren't enough, schools that use federal money in their lunch programs must shop for foods without any preference based on geographic origin of the foods (there's talk of changing this in the 2007 farm bill... if there even is a 2007 farm bill anymore). And if they could, the quantities demanded by the schools often cannot be supplied by small farms.

Other barriers mentioned by the article are:

  • Schools have ripped out kitchens and replaced them with closet-sized rewarming centers with no capacity to deal with things such as dirty carrots.
  • Seasonal availability, liability insurance requirements, lack of processing equipment and distribution networks prevent smaller farms from being able to reliably deliver products that schools want.

Another article, Local Carrots with a Side of Red Tape, goes into the hurdles faced by New York farmers attempting to introduce their carrots into New York schools. Simply slicing the carrots would be too labor-intensive for the schools, so instead they tried baby carrots.

Baby carrots are full carrots whittled into their "baby" form, and most originate from California. The New York farmers were growing a different variety of carrots than the California variety used to make baby carrots, but one farmer took a chance and grew the baby carrot variety as a test.

The test was a bust. The carrots grew poorly in New York soil - and by grinding them into babies the farmer wasted 70% of each carrot. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending because the schools and farmers came up with a coin-shaped carrot slice they could bag in individual portions for the kids.

Once the New Yorkers found the right way to serve the kids carrots, they had to work through even more logistics - ensuring they'd have enough carrots year-round, finding the right distributor, making sure they aren't breaking the laws by favoring their local carrot farmers, etc. For the farmer, he must either ship the carrots out to another state where they can be processed into coin shapes or invest in the proper equipment himself.

For a simple problem - finding how to get local foods into nearby schools - the solutions are often incredibly complex.

Success Stories
Despite the roadblocks, farm-to-school programs are popping up all over the country. In Wisconsin, Mt. Horeb schools participating in the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program spend about 10% of their food budget on local foods.

This article recognizes the difficulties discussed above, but tells how the Mt. Horeb schools overcame them, serving the kids organic veggies from their teacher's farm. To make the program work, they require parent volunteers to tend school gardens over the summer, and they make compromises (like serving local apples with less expensive tacos made from commodity beef and refried beans, or skipping on dessert).

I've got a special spot in my heart for this Wisconsin - and not just because I lived there. I used to participate in REAP Foodgroup, the group that works with the University of Wisconsin to run the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program. Not only that, but I've eaten some of the same foods the Mt. Horeb kids get in their lunches.

Another article tells of South Hampton, New Hampshire's program. In it, the program director notes that the Farm to School program will help keep New Hampshire rural by giving farmers the business they need to stay on the land.

The New Hampshire program is new, and there is more work to be done before it grows, such as working out the logistics and educating school administrators. In contrast, California has had farm to school programs for a decade already. With ten years of data to look back on, they report impacts such as greater school lunch participation and increased consumption of fruits & veggies among the kids.

In addition to the obvious benefits named above, a surprising (and wonderful!) effect of the program occurred as students, teachers, and parents built relationships with local farmers and began giving them more business. Even better, the programs generated interest in locally sourcing foods from other nearby institutions (such as hospitals).

If you'd like more information about farm to school programs near you or advice on how you can get involved in starting one, check out the Farm to School website. Another fun website to check out is Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard site.

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