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Local Food In “Healthy Schools”: The Debate Begins

January 6th, 2010 · 3 Comments · Posted in kids, Sustainability, Wellness

D.C. Farm to School Network tours Clagett Farm

D.C. Farm to School Network tours Clagett Farm

Today’s guest post on “Healthy Schools” legislation recently introduced in the D.C. Council is written by Andrea Northup, executive director of the D.C. Farm to School Network, and cross-posted from the DC Food for All blog. I edited the piece and contributed some of the text. On January 12, Andrea will be conducting a “webinar” with slides, commentary and live chat. Just click on the link and follow instructions to join in.

By Andrea Northup 

With the recent introduction of “Healthy Schools” legislation in the D.C. Council, the District of Columbia joins a gathering national movement toward incorporating local produce in school meals. By providing strong impetus for schools to serve more nutritious foods grown in our own area, the bill in one broad stroke addresses interlocking concerns surrounding child wellness, sustainable food production and construction of a resilient local food system. 

“Healthy Schools” attempts an integrated approach to child wellness through better school nutrition, broader availability of free meals and increased exercise. It also addresses many environmental concerns through expanded recycling and composting programs in schools and school gardens. The “farm to school” concept—serving local produce in school cafeterias and bringing students into closer contact with the source of their food—exists in more than 2,000 programs around the country, but is very new to D.C. 

The bill raises a number of interesting questions about our schools, child nutrition and local agriculture, and faces some obvious hurdles. Here are a few of them: 


The main barriers school food service providers cite when working to incorporate local food into their cafeteria menus are increased cost of purchasing higher quality local products, along with the inconvenience and uncertainties of switching from conventional wholesale purchasing habits to buying from local farmers. The “Healthy Schools” bill, introduced jointly by Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) would provide a bonus of five cents to school food operations for school meals that contain local produce. 

That five cents would be paid by the city in addition to federal funding of school meals, currently $2.68 for each fully subsidized lunch. In fact, the bonus for local produce might not add up to very much for the city budget. 

 If 20 percent of all school meals met the requirement, the annual cost would only be around $225,000. On the flip side, farm-to-school programs and other efforts to improve the quality of foods served in schools often means more kids participate in the lunch program, resulting in greater revenues.  The bigger issue may be whether schools will accept the challenge of additional paperwork, and be willing to take on the administrative maze within the D.C. Office of State Superintendent of Education, which would administer the program. The devil is in the details. 


There’s really little question that our local growers—meaning those in the Mid-Atlantic region–are capable of meeting a great deal of the food needs of District schools. The bigger hurdle is getting that food through complex layers of transport, processing, storage and distribution. The “Healthy Schools” bill proposes grants to help develop new systems, such as storage and processing facilities for local produce. 

Seasonality will have to be addressed creatively. The Washington area currently is more geared toward foods grown in warmer months, but more and more farmers are embracing a winter growing season and looking for steady markets, something a large school system would immediately provide. Even the White House is experimenting with methods such as row covers to grow vegetables in winter. 

Schools in Burlington, Vermont, get produce all year round because they process and freeze it during the summer—zucchini bread, tomato sauce, pesto are just a few examples. There are many ways D.C. schools can partner with small processing companies, or even help develop new local industries. 

We can start small. It will take lots of education, coordination, creativity and incentives to make this work here. 


School food service providers may not have heard of farm-to-school programs or made them a priority among the many issues they deal with feeding the District’s school children each day. These include administrative paperwork snafus, constantly changing enrollments, delays in city payments, food safety questions. Chartwells, the food provider for D.C. Public Schools, feeds daily approximately 30,000 of the 40,000 children enrolled, making it the largest feeding program in the city. An additional 20,000 children, approximately, attend public charter schools which hire their own food service providers individually. 

If farm-to-school requirements are codified into city law, schools will begin to demand healthful, local foods in their food service contracts, and food vendors will be forced to prioritize them. The bill also encourages farm-to-school program promotion, education for students and staff, and incorporating farm-to-school goals into school wellness policies. This will require the city and non-profits such as the D.C. Farm to School Network working together to get food service personnel and other stakeholders up to speed. 

Reducing the Carbon Footprint 

The farm-to-school ideal embraces twin goals of reducing the number of miles food travels from fields to plates and building food security around more resilient local agriculture. Purchasing locally grown foods boosts the local economy, while enticing children to eat more healthfully with fresher, tastier ingredients. The “Healthy Schools” bill represents an additional step forward by requiring that local foods also be “sustainably” grown. 

The legislation defines this as food grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, without non-therapeutic hormones or antibiotics, and using methods that conserve the soil and reduce carbon emissions. Though certainly a worthy goal and consistent with efforts to fight global warming, this provision might be difficult to enforce, since no real standards exist for what constitutes “sustainable.” Cumbersome certification requirements could discourage participation in the program. 

The bill also would require vendors to certify where all produce served in D.C. schools comes from. 

Indeed, adopting “Healthy Schools” would mean wrestling with many administrative and logistical challenges. But this bill places front and center the issue of where our school food comes from and how we can make it more healthful and more sustainable. Having the farm to school issue on the District’s radar benefits everyone.

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  • Diane

    This sounds like a good start for DC. I hope it’s not only successful but a model for other school systems. We have a really active non profit that acts as an umbrella for many sustainable farming activities including farmers’ markets and community gardens. They have recently begun organizing a distribution system for local farmers so their products are efficiently distributed to restaurants. A system like this might work for schools too so you may want to get in touch with them.

  • Ed Bruske

    Diane, thanks for that link. Great resource. I like the sound of the indoor winter market in Pawtucket. Have you been?

  • Diane

    I have indeed been to the Pawtucket market when I happened to be in the area last year but it’s a pretty big drive for me. It’s quite spectacular and definitely the inspiration for our new one in North Kingstown, including some of the same vendors. I suspect that a lot of commercial landlords would appreciate the extra income of a winter market these days, especially if it takes place on a low traffic day like Saturday.