Thursday, July 8, 2010

What Does "Local" Mean for School Food?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. Schools are set to start two pilot meal programs that would require food vendors to supply at least 20 percent of ingredients from sources in the Mid-Atlantic region, defined as Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, North Carolina and the District of Columbia.

Making school meals with local produce has been promoted as a way of serving fresher, more appetizing fruits and vegetables to kids and was embraced in "Healthy Schools" legislation recently approved by the D.C. Council. "Healthy Schools" also encourages schools to use produce grown according to "sustainable" farming methods.

The "Healthy Schools" act requires all public schools in the District to identify the sources of their meal ingredients and rewards the use of local products by providing a five-cent bonus for every meal that contains locally-sourced ingredients.

Up to now, fruits and vegetables in D.C. Public Schools have been provided by the school system's contracted food services provider--Chartwells--which relies for its purchases on a national food distribution system.

The salad mix served in D.C. schools, for instance, consists of shredded iceberg lettuce, carrots and purple cabbage grown and processed in California. Apples sometimes come from as far away as New Zealand. When I spent a week as an observer in the kitchen of my daughter's elementary school--H.D. Cooke--a mix of broccoli, carrots and cauliflower came from Mexico.

One of the reasons schools don't use more local produce is because local farmers are not connected to a large-scale distribution system. Keany produce, one of the area's larger distributors, located in Landover, MD, does offer customers locally-grown selections. D.C. Central Kitchen, which provides thousands of meals to the needy every day, and provides foods for some schools through it's catering arm, Fresh Start Catering, sources much of its produce from a food auction site in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

What difference does "local" make for school meals?

Most of the vegetables served in D.C. schools are never eaten because they are cooked to death and served as dull-looking side dishes that kids reject. Simply replacing those vegetables with locally-grown produce won't make any difference at all. Broccoli, after all, is still broccoli, whether it's grown in California or Maryland. It all comes down to kitchen skills and presentation.

In Berkeley, CA, where I worked for a week as a "kitchen lady" to see how one of the country's most progressive school food operations worked, vegetables rarely were served as side dishes. Instead, they were mixed into sauces and soups, or tossed into pasta and other dishes. Even so, the kids I served in the food line often went to great lengths to avoid vegetables.

Under the proposed pilot schemes, the 20 percent figure does not refer to a quantity of local produce, but is calculated according to price. In other words, local products are to represent 20 percent of the cost of food ingredients. Thus, if the local goods are more expensive, kids might see proportionately less of them on their trays.

This is just one more wrinkle food vendors involved in these pilot programs will have to deal with in order to comply with food service contracts loaded with new standards and requirements, but paid for with the same old budget. It's a tall order.

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