For the last several months I’ve been meeting with the adviory board of a new D.C. Farm to School Network. Like the programs in more than 2,000 other schools around the country, the idea is to find ways to introduce healthful produce from area farms into the District of Columbia Schools. The concept dates to the 1990s, so you’d think we here in the nation’s capitol would have gotten on the band wagon sooner. Andrea Northup of the Capital Area Food Bank finally got the ball rolling and she’s done an impressive job of gathering every sort of local food, farm and parent group to figure this thing out.
Some see tapping local farms as a way of improving the nutrition in local schools. Fresh, local foods are bound to be better than the mass-produced, institutional fare currently on the plates in our public schools, right? Personally, I’m not sure that’s the best argument for redesigning how schools source their food. The bigger issue for me is that Americans–children and adults alike–have simply grown distant from where their food originates and consequently indifferent about what they eat. We’ve been conditioned by corporate food interests to expect food that’s overly refined, overly doused with chemicals, overly engineered to stimulate our appetites. We’ve forgotten what real food is supposed to taste like, where it’s grown or or how to prepare it.
Turning schools on to local food could change that. Farm to school programs should involve not just fresh, local produce, but educational components that teach kids how food is grown, where it comes from, how it is prepared.In other words, how to eat more healthfully. One of the most successful farm to school options is the salad bar. Now, kids are not going to get all the calories they need from a salad bar. But it does give them a chance to get involved directly in their food choices, to lay hands, as it were, on the raw ingredients and learn for themselves. Kids love to work with food, and that’s a sure glide path to learning which foods are more healthful, one way to begin addressing problems like obesity and diabetes.
But you very quickly learn that there are major obstacles to getting local products into the school system. Most school food programs operate on the slimmest of budgets and no longer have cooking facilities. They’ve turned their food service operations over to huge corporations or fast food companies that source their products through other giant, industrialized operations. It’s all about economies of scale, which is why school food ranks somewhere below airline food. Then there is the federally-funded school lunch program, which forces schools to offer the horrible foods kids most like to eat–pizza, french fries, tater tots. Finally, there are all sorts of requirements that the ingredients for school lunches come from certified, inspected facilities. That rules out most local farms.
Trying to devise a farm to school program, you discover that we won’t be replacing the current offerings with fresh, local produce for the D.C. public school system’s nearly 50,000 students any time soon. There are just too many barriers to overcome–at least for now. Rather, our focus is directed toward charter schools–now with more than 20,000 students. Charter schools, while public, operate much more independently, without all the regulatory burdens of the larger system. Each charter school, in fact, chooses its own food provider, usually a small, local caterer who drops off meals. In theory, at least, charter schools are free to strike up their own relationship with a local farmer and begin purchasing their own fruits, vegetables, dairy.
Honestly, it sounds terribly inefficient, individual farmers running around the city dropping off apples and salad greens. And implicit in this sort of system is the idea that schools with strong parent groups and greater funding will have a better chance of seeing local produce actually find its way into the school lunch room. So we arrive back at the same dilemma that hangs over the local food movement: is it only for people of means, or do regular folk–even poor people–get to share in some of that fresh, local produce?
Those are some of the bigger questions hanging over our farm to school movement. Meanwhile, we keep our nose to the grindstone, scribbling policy proposals, looking for grant money and making plans for a “Local Flavor Week” in September that will introduce the farm to school idea to the broader public here in D.C. You can hear Andrea Northup talk about it today on the Kojo Nnamdi show, from 1:00 pm to 1:30. If you can’t listen to the show live, it will be archived so that you can tune in via your computer.