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Local food for local schools

Move for fresh produce gaining, conference hears

By Jonathan Pitts | The Baltimore Sun

Jodi Risse
Jodi Risse, supervisor of food and nutrition services for Anne Arundel County's public schools, poses
with a cornstalk and some locally grown produce. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / July 29, 2009)

Sometimes the best questions come from the most unexpected places.

Take the case of Doug Davis, a food expert who had been on his new job - planning menus at a Vermont public school - for only a few weeks when the woman who owned the orchard next door approached him.

"My apple trees are so close to the school, the apples fall right onto your playground," she said. "Why are the students being served apples from Oregon?"

Davis, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and industry veteran, stopped short. "I really don't know," he said.

The answer to her question - an elaborate explanation involving the Department of Defense and economies of scale - was less important than the fact it had to be asked.

Clearly, the system bringing food to school cafeterias was deeply flawed.

Davis, an award-winning food service director, spent the next 18 years helping to nurture a trend now bearing fruit across the country, including in Maryland: the "farm to school" movement, a loosely organized if fast-growing campaign whose goal is to get locally grown food onto schoolchildren's trays.

"Farm to school is a complex mission with many working parts," Stew Eidel, a Maryland State Department of Education official, told nearly 200 farmers, educators, food-service directors and parents at an Anne Arundel County workshop last week. "But it has one simple goal: to produce healthy kids."

Davis and Eidel were speakers at the Jane Lawton Farm to School Conference in Crownsville, a joint production of the state's agriculture and education departments. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly charged the divisions with promoting fresh and local school food by passing Senate Bill 158, a measure that created the Jane Lawton Farm to School Program.

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed it into law in May 2008.

Lawton, a former House delegate from Montgomery County, spent years campaigning to bring healthier food to Maryland school cafeterias.

"She was always emphatic about getting junk food out of the schools," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation with Lawton before she died of a heart attack in 2007.

In a year of budget cuts, the measure has attracted little in the way of funding, but it has created a framework in which ideas have taken root in the state, and many are flowering.

Here in Maryland and nationwide, the movement has one principal enemy: Getting food into schools is a lot more complicated than it looks.

Farmers must grow the food, organically or in mass; truckers haul it. Budget-conscious food-service directors choose menus; superintendents approve them. Legislators set broader budgetary priorities.

Over the past five decades, a system has evolved that favors mass purchasing, faceless ordering and the kind of preservative-laden, fat-rich foods many say have helped make American children obese.

"These problems have been developing for a long time," said Tegan Hagy of the Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that tracks farm-to-school movements across America. "You're not going to fix them overnight."

Creative thinkers, though, have made an impact, one that has grown since the modern movement began in about 1995 and that seems to be blossoming now. Davis' Vermont has emerged as a model in the field since he became the state's top food-services director in 2003.

That year, the school district in Burlington, Davis' hometown, spent $300 on locally grown food. Less nutritious and less tasty items (white bread, iceberg lettuce, mass-produced yogurt) dominated the menu, and half the students were signed up for the voluntary meals program.

Last year, the city spent $50,000 on locally grown foods, students were enjoying artisan breads, romaine lettuce and rich, locally made yogurt, and more than 70 percent were having school meals.

His secret?

"Start small, and watch the growth," he said during an hourlong address.

Davis encouraged his audience to respect those already working in the industry but to inspire change in subtle ways.

He told of bringing local restaurant chefs into schools so his staff - accustomed to ladling food onto plates, assembly-line style - could see them chop and dice. Children saw the servers learning, he said, and grew curious, and when teachers and administrators bought into the idea, the subject of food became an organic part of the school day.

Meanwhile, he kept an eye out for local bargains. Upon learning that a local chicken farmer was throwing away drumsticks, he haggled a good price: $1.20 per pound, the same amount he'd been paying for processed chicken.

"The kids are still going nuts over those," he said. "It doesn't have to be expensive."

Eating locally made zucchini muffins and downing fresh juices, the participants spent the day swapping insights and brainstorming ways in which Maryland might build on a promising beginning.

The state's inaugural venture came just 3 1/2 months after the law was enacted, when schools across the state celebrated the first Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week in September. Nineteen of 24 school systems participated, some adding local tomatoes, corn, apples and carrots to school meals, others inviting growers to schools to showcase their crops, still others offering courses on food.

Education is an important part of most farm-to-school programs. Anyone from a teacher to a visiting grower can describe or demonstrate how a seed is planted, how a plant is nurtured, how much energy it consumes and generates.

"We want to teach kids that food doesn't grow in grocery stores," Raskin said. "It's part of an ecosystem, and the more they understand that, the more invested they become."

Brandishing a 6-foot cornstalk as a prop, Eidel told the group about his two daughters, who have grown up tending corn, beans and strawberries in the family's yard.

"They appreciate how much energy is required to raise a food-producing plant," he said.

Maryland comes fairly late, at least officially, to the farm-to-school movement, but Hagy of the Food Trust described its first homegrown lunch week as a resounding success.

Anne Arundel was one of the counties that took it seriously. Jodi Risse, supervisor of the school system's food and nutrition services, said it was eye-opening to call the district's longtime distributor, Keany Produce of Landover, and "talk to a human being on the other end" rather than faxing in the customary mass order.

Over three months, she spoke frequently with Keany reps to get updates on which local peaches seemed a little bruised or which apples and cherry tomatoes were the juiciest. She now repeats that process once a week throughout the growing season, which lasts, she said, into October.

Risse found a way to provide local produce for about 40,000 school meals a day during the week. In a year's time, Anne Arundel County's public schools have gone from buying no locally grown food to buying 38,000 pounds' worth, including squash, Asian pears, cantaloupe and zucchini.

This year, more than 20 counties and 30 farms have been collaborating to prepare for the second Homegrown School Lunch Week, which is scheduled to happen across the state Sept. 14-18.

Farm to school may not see substantial funding until the state's budget crisis lessens, but Hagy says interest throughout Maryland is keen and the bill passed last year provides a rare bureaucratic framework.

More than 40 states have some kind of farm-to-school movement now, but only a handful have cemented one in law, and that helps everyone sell the idea.

"You have a wonderful policy here in this region," she said.

Risse has already learned something Davis found out early on: that just as a seed some day becomes a flowering plant, the little things harvest big results.

Some of her most rewarding moments have come when she simply takes the time to show students a whole, fresh cucumber or peach.

Many have never seen a cuke unsliced or a peach that didn't come straight from a can. It amazes them, she observed, and makes the food taste that much better.

"This stuff sells itself," Risse said, her smile as fresh as a just-picked tomato. "We're giving them a tool they can use to make a healthy choice the rest of their lives."

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