Under legislation introduced this week in the D.C. Council, the District of Columbia would become one of the few jurisdictions in the country to place a bounty on school meals that rely on locally grown foods. The bill mandates an extra five cents for school lunch meals containing fruits and vegetables that are locally grown and minimally processed, to be paid by the Office of State Superintendent of Education.
The proposed payment, supplementing funds provided by the federal government to subsidize school meals, would represent a rare instance of a local government kicking in to raise the quality of school food, especially around the idea of locally produced ingredients.
The provision makes a further distinction that would set the District apart from most jurisdictions that have embraced local foods in school meals: it would require that those fruits and vegetables come from farmers engaged in “sustainable practices.”
This last requirement is sure to raise some eyebrows on Capitol Hil, where industrial agriculture–an industry heavily reliant on fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels–enjoys huge support and puts a giant lobbying effort into play. The D.C. “Healthy Schools” proposal, which must ultimately be approved by Congress, defines ”sustainable practices” as those that “minimize carbon emissions and other environmental degradation, regenerate soil nutrients through crop rotation or other methods that minimize environmental impact, avoid the use of chemical fertilizers, sythetic pesticides and herbicides,..”
And, in a move that could significantly shift some thinking about how D.C. schools source the meats and dairy products they serve to children–as well as bringing the city more into line with good food advocates–the bill includes under its sustainability umbrella agricultural techniques that “avoid non-therapeutic antibiotics and hormones.” Antibiotics and hormones are routinely used to increase production in industrial-scale dairies and feedlot operations, raising concerns and a fierce debate over possible impacts on human health as well as animal treatment.
Introduced jointly by Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, the proposal (read more here and here) could have some immediate impact on the way food service providers source their products for D.C. schools. It states that “public schools shall not enter into food service contracts that prohibit the purchase” of locally and sustainably grown farm products. It also requires food service providers to “identify, disclose, and certify the location where fruits and vegetables are grown and processed and whether growers are engaged in sustainable practices.”
The proposed legislation represents a huge gift to advocates of locally and sustainably grown farm products. But it may be more carrot than stick. The bill says that public schools–including charter schools–must serve foods grown locally and sustainably “whenever possible,” with a preference for foods “grown or processed” in Maryland or Virginia. Tight food budgets as well as a food distribution network not necessarily geared to locally and sustainably grown products could sorely test the meaning of “whenever possible.”
The bill contains other suggestions for increasing the use of local products, and boosting the local farm economy. It calls on schools to “collaborate” with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, community organizations and food service providers “in teaching students and food service staff about the economic, environmental, and nutritional benefits of purchasing and eating” local foods.
The bill would require the state superintendent of education to issue grants toward developing programs that advance a farm-to-school program, but only “when funds are appropriated.” It also calls on schools to adopt programs such as a “local flavor week” or a “harvest of the month” that promote local foods.
In the last year, a D.C. Farm to School Network, organized by the Capitol Area Food Bank, has emerged to encourage farm-to-school practices. It’s largest event to date was a highly successful “Local Flavor Week” in September that resulted in cooking demonstrations and other food-related activities in dozens of D.C. schools.
Full disclosure: I am a member of the D.C. Farm to School Network’s advisory board and had a hand in writing some of the sustainability language that appears in the “Healthy Schools” legislation.