Ask a group of school kids about "mystery meat" and they may have no idea what you're talking about, not if they're on the feeding end of national and local efforts to transform school lunch programs. A genuine movement is afoot at schools to create better, more nutritional meals for kids using produce from local farmers, and in many cases, from gardens the students help create and maintain themselves.
Forty-six states now have farm-to-school programs, many of which are bearing fruit. More than a million school-age children in New York City's public schools are eating four times the amount of apples than they ever have because of a new partnership with local apple producers. In Chicago, 300,000 kids in public schools eat locally-produced vegetables in school lunches year-round. And in Atlanta, 81,000 students in the public school system will soon enjoy the gardens being planned for each school, and a wellness curriculum that integrates their harvesting.
And to the cheers of many farmers and families, on December 13th, President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which expands federal funds for school lunches and designates $40 million to farm-to-school initiatives. These programs require local innovation and collaboration, not just between farms and schools, but between state agencies, non-profits, and community volunteers (depending on how they are funded).
Michelle Ratcliffe, Farm-to-School Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, emphasized that the movement is about more than switching ingredients. "Procure, promote, and educate," she said, "It's not enough to have local produce if the kids and the parents don't know about it."
Interested in the pioneering folks leading the way?
-- Lizzie Simon, The Daily Meal
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Administrators at Greenview Upper Elementary School in South Euclid, Ohio, discovered that kids were more likely to eat salad greens and try unfamiliar produce if they'd met and questioned the local farmer who grew it. Also worth noting: the produce travels roughly sixty miles from the farm to cafeteria trays, rather than the 2,600-mile trip it used to make, a distance that diminished the quality of produce (apples, for instance, got mealier, and greens wilted) and put more strain on the environment. Related: 8 Healthy Breakfast Options
At Samuel J. Green Charter School (K-8), 98% of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Now, thanks to The Edible Schoolyard program in New Orleans, these kids are not only eating from organic farms, but learning how to create them. Launched in 2006, The Edible Schoolyard is based on Chef Alice Water's Berkeley, Calif., program and reflects the values she has promoted for decades. Gardening and cooking classes take place in a state-of-the-art test kitchen provided by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. Students are readied for seasonal events and competitions that promote the harvest and healthy living. Related: 21 Deadly Dishes
After four years of farm-to-school piloting and growth, programs are now embedded in all eighteen of Traverse City's public schools, located in the northwest region of Michigan. Produce is purchased directly from local farmers shortly after being harvested, and transported nearby to schools where it appears on menus and in the salad bar. Last year, the town purchased more than a thousand pounds of strawberries from local growers and froze some for use throughout the school year -- thanks to their high quality and flavor they were all gone within months. Administrators are planning to freeze three times as many for the 2011-2012 school year. Related: A Statistical Look at America's Food Landscape
The L.C. Hunt Middle School in Burlington, buys direct from local Vermont farms. It has the biggest garden in its school district, and one of the highest meal participation rates in Vermont. Fifty percent of the kids there qualify for either free, or reduced meals. Director of Food Service Doug Davis says the kids are open-minded and willing to try things that they haven't been exposed to before, like quinoa salad, squash soup, and vegan chili. Each spring they compete with other middle schoolers in their state in a Junior Iron Chef event that highlights local culture. Related: The Daily Meal's Favorite Healthy Recipes
When they transitioned from processed lunches to ones made from foods produced locally the Washburn School District witnessed the number of kids they fed double from 60 to 120 in just two months. Lunch offerings have included chicken mint-pesto salad with feta, real ginger slices at an Asian noodle bar, and pumpkin soup. In addition, kids at the elementary school drink milk from a farm less than three miles away. The staff buys local produce from farmers, and uses cucumbers, cabbage, squash, basil, rutabaga, potatoes, beans, garlic, tomatoes, and carrots from the Middle and Elementary schools' 80-square foot garden. Related: 8 Truly Farm-to-Table Restaurants
At lunch, the Emerson Elementary School in Riverside, Calif., feeds its kids fruits and vegetables from its partner, the two-acre East Side Community Garden. Administrators have invited farmers into the classroom to teach kids about produce grown on the farm they share. And for the past five years, more than 25% of their kids choose the all-you-can-eat, self-service salad bar, which serves as an alternative to a traditional lunch. Related: Top Trends in Farming and Vegetables in 2011
At Sibley East-Arlington High School in South Central Minnesota, students cultivated at least one plant of every crop that can be grown in Minnesota, including beans, potatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, tomatoes, onions, and squash. Once the harvest season began, food service staff incorporated the produce in the cafeteria for such items like salsa, pumpkin bars, and pickles. The superintendent of schools is planning to expand their one-acre garden to five acres in 2011. Related: 5 Tips for Making Healthy "Mocktails"
Orcas Island Public School is on the largest of the San Juan Islands off of Washington State. For the past six years, the food-to-cafeteria program has fed their 500 students (K-12). Funded by community donations and grants, produce from local farmers contribute ingredients for 190 breakfasts and 300 lunches made from scratch in their small cafeteria kitchen. Sample dishes include Southwest lasagna with fresh local grass-fed beef, zucchini, and basil; and Salmon from the nearby Glenwood Springs Hatchery, with pasta. Related: America's Small Family Farms
Cleveland High School in Portland, Ore., is in walking distance to a Wendy's and a McDonald's. But students have much better options right in their campus cafeteria, for example, chicken with couscous, and black beans with corn salad. That's thanks in part to a district-wide use of FoodHub.org, an online marketplace for purchasing bulk produce from local farmers. FoodHub was created by the non-profit Eco Trust, which has also designed a training program that helps schools adapt to farm-to-school programs, teaching administrators about seasonality, how to integrate more produce into meals, and how to build and maintain a garden. Related: 10 Healthy Lunches for Work
At the Elizabeth Tate High School in Iowa City, the non-profit organization Slow Food Iowa assisted in the construction of a twelve thousand-square foot organic school garden, orchard, and outdoor classroom. The school specializes in alternative education for students who need individualized programs, and the school garden provides a new kind of landscape for learning. Thanks to the non-profit Local Food Connection, the school also has relationships with local farms who donate extras for use in the lunchroom. "Farm-to-school programs are at the heart of what we’re about," said Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel, "Informed, healthy kids are the first step towards building that reality." Related: Tips on Shopping at the Farmers Market
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