Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More "Healthy Schools" Testimony: Andrea Northup

By Andrea Northup

My name is Andrea Northup, and I coordinate the DC Farm to School Network - a broad-based
coalition working to get more healthy, local foods into Washington, DC schools, and to
reconnect schoolchildren with where their food comes from. I work closely with many of the
people this bill will directly impact - teachers, principals, food service directors, food producers,
parents and students. I am here to voice the D.C. Farm to School Network’s support for Farm to School in the Healthy Schools Act.

I am not the first to highlight some of the problems this bill is trying to address - Washington,
DC has the third highest child poverty rate and the ninth highest percentage of overweight and
obese children in the nation. A stunning 81% of D.C. children are reportedly NOT getting their
recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. And we all know that getting kids
to eat healthy is not just as easy as serving healthy foods on their plate.

Farm to school programs address these issues by connecting schools with local farms in order to
serve healthy foods in school meals and educate kids about where food comes from. The bottom
line is that when local foods are served in school cafeterias, and kids feel a connection to them,
they eat more servings of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables! It’s been proven in cafeterias

Why do kids eat more healthy foods when they’re a part of a farm to school program? Local
foods taste delicious because they are picked at the peak of their flavor and nutrient content.
Have you tasted a fresh, juicy, tomato picked in September? Compare that to it’s artificially-
ripened and well-traveled white mealy counterpart served in February. When kids feel a
connection with their food - be it by growing food in a school garden, visiting a farm, or cooking
with a chef - they are more likely to appreciate and eat that food.

Since farm to school programs increase fruit and vegetable consumption, they reduce the risk of
child childhood obesity and other diet-related diseases, and promote optimal physical health,
growth, and intellectual development, energy levels and mental alertness. Local foods are
typically grown with fewer harmful chemicals and hormones. Farm to school programs reduce
the miles that school food travels, thus reducing pollution and carbon footprints while at the
same time supporting our vibrant local food economy.

A new study out this month shows that in many cases, farm to school programs can make smart
financial sense for school food service operations once they are in place. Schools serve a higher
quality product that kids are excited to eat, and thus see increased satisfaction and participation
rates that draw down more federal reimbursements. Plus, seasonal foods can be cheaper, when
farmers have a surplus of certain foods that are priced to move. These programs benefit everyone--kids, food services, the environment and the community.

Schools across the country are finding creative ways to incorporate healthy, local, sustainable
foods into school meals - in fact, over 2,000 school districts in 43 states have farm to school
programs. Large, urban school districts are no exception - some of the most progressive include
Chicago, Denver, New York and St. Paul. And right next door, Baltimore City Public Schools
serve all-Maryland grown fresh fruits and vegetables year round - and they’ve seen their produce consumption rates jump and meal participation rates increase.

But Washington, DC is lagging behind the rest of the country. Let’s take a look at why this is so,
and how the Healthy Schools Act can help.

First, farm to school is not necessarily on the radar of schools and food service providers. They
have systems in place to buy foods from large wholesalers and retailers from all over the
country, and their curricula revolves solely around standardized testing scores. We strongly feel that the City Council must put pressure on schools and food service providers to buy healthy, local, sustainable foods whenever costs are within reasonable variation of conventional food costs.

There are a wide variety of foods available in the mid-Atlantic region from early spring to late
winter - apples, broccoli, carrots, beans, sweet corn, melon, onions, squash, peas, potatoes, pears, peaches - the list goes on! In season, these foods cost the same if not less than similar foods
from around the country - and they’re fresher and taste better. We need to get schools and
vendors to develop purchasing systems that take advantage of the local food economy around us, and the encouragement won’t cost a dime.

But encouragement is not enough - schools and food service providers NEED financial
incentives to serve healthy, local foods and get kids excited about where their food comes from.
The most recent data we have on the actual cost of school food is from the 2005/2006 school
year, which is that schools spend on average $1.09 per meal on food. That number comes from
subtracting all of the overhead costs (labor, supplies, utensils, lights in the cafeteria, etc.) from
the federal school meal reimbursement ($2.70 for a “free” meal for which over 70% of D.C.
students qualify). Food and labor costs have gone up since then. That’s not much wiggle room.

Serving local, sustainably grown foods in school meals can be more expensive than conventional
foods if there is not a system in place to purchase, process, store and distribute those foods. I’ve
talked with MANY school food service providers about this issue. They agree that the best
possible incentive would be for schools to submit receipts each month for the purchase of
unprocessed, healthy, local foods used in school meals - perhaps from a list of qualifying foods
like Connecticut. Each month the Office of the State Superintendent of Education would give
schools a 10% rebate on those purchases along with their monthly reimbursements. This way the incentive would be tied directly to local food purchasing, and it wouldn’t be too much of an
administrative burden.

If 100% of schools participated and purchased 10% local products in the 2010/2011 school year
(an incredibly high estimate) - the incentive would cost around $30,000. That is a SMALL price to pay to incentivize healthy, local foods that kids will actually eat.

In order to really kick-start farm to school programs in the District, the Council should make
good on its offer to provide a central production kitchen for public and public charter schools.
Cities across the country have developed similar facilities that provide jobs, stimulate economies, and take advantage of scale while providing schools with a central receiving, storage, processing
and transportation “node” for healthy, local foods.

Critical to this entire process is that the Healthy Schools Act require schools and food service
providers to disclose where the food they serve comes from and how it is grown. Forcing
schools to do this will get them to think about where their food comes from, whereas right now
many haven’t a clue. Without this baseline reporting, we can’t hold schools accountable and
can’t expect them to change.

And none of this will be possible unless government agencies are required to collaborate with
schools, community organizations and the private sector to promote farm to school programs
happen in the cafeteria, and connect them with classroom education and community efforts.
We call for a mandatory Farm to School promotional week each year and regular education and
promotion of the farm to school program to students and staff - this is CRUCIAL. We have the
support from the bottom up - we just need it from the top down.

Most kids (especially those at risk of hunger) get their main meals each day at school, but school
meals do more than just deliver the nutrients kids need to thrive and learn. They form eating
habits that persist later in life, and spread to families and communities. If current obesity trends continue, we will spend about $933 per adult in the District of Columbia on obesity related
health care in 2018, or about $341 million total. We can’t afford not to tackle the issue of
obesity. As the First Lady has so eloquently pointed out, it starts with what we feed our children
in schools.

The DC Farm to School Network represents hundreds of partners, many of whom either
submitted testimony or testified today, who care about the health of the District’s schoolchildren, our community, the environment and our local food economy. I have had the pleasure of working with teachers, students, food service providers, farmers, processors, private and non-profit sector leaders, chefs, educators and urban gardeners. We see the value in farm to school programs for D.C. kids, our environment, and our community. We promise to do everything we possibly can to make farm to school happen here in the nation’s capital, and we hope the Council will, too.

Andrea Northup is the coordinator of the D.C. Farm to School Network.

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