By Angela Albright
For most people the phrase “school lunch” conjures up images of rubbery hamburgers, chicken nuggets processed beyond recognition, and soggy gray vegetables. A new movement, often referred to as “Farm to School” is attempting to change our long-held ideas about school lunch.
Like dozens of schools across the country, the Fayetteville public school system has started a program to bring local, farm-grown foods into the school lunch program. Even though this is nation-wide movement, Fayetteville is the first school district in Arkansas to adopt this practice. The program began in Washington Elementary in 2005, and Leverett and Asbell Elementary schools have since been added. Additionally, the program goes district-wide two days each season. This past August and September, students were treated to fresh watermelon, peaches, and apples.
Bringing fresh foods to the schools is a cooperative effort between the school district and Jim Lukens, the manager of the farmers’ co-op that organizes the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market. Lukens collects produce from the market on Tuesdays, delivers it to the schools, then the cafeterias serve it on Wednesdays. Because of our local growing seasons, the program is limited to eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring. The decision of what to serve on these Wednesdays is often last minute and dependent on the available produce a particular week. Therefore, the fresh produce is served in addition to the printed school district menu so that the various cafeterias do not have to change or adjust their menus.
As in many participating schools, the program goes beyond just fresh food in lunches. Schools are using the fresh produce as an opportunity to educate students and teachers about the health benefits of fresh foods in their diet. In schools in other states, students grow their own gardens, tend to greenhouses and hydroponic gardens, and invite farmers to visit to classrooms. Locally, Lukens has developed posters for each school that feature the produce, some of the local participating farmers, and children eating the food. These posters are put up on the days the fresh produce is served. Farmer Peg has visited Washington Elementary in the past. Lisa Jenkins, registered dietician and Director of Food Services for the Fayetteville school district, oversees the program. She hopes the school district will be able to expand the educational opportunities associated with the farm-to-school program.
According to Jenkins, the idea originated in the Nutrition and Wellness Committee that was formed as a requirement of Act 1220, legislation the Arkansas General Assembly passed in April 2003. Among other things, this act required each school district to develop and establish a wellness policy by July 2006. The Fayetteville committee—made up of district parents, university professors, representatives from the elementary and secondary schools, physicians, and the district superintendent—hired a consultant to help them develop the policy. Of all the options available to the school district to improve health and wellness, the farm-to-school suggestion cost less than other programs and has more long-term benefits.
The advantages of such a program are plain, the most obvious being the nutrition fresh produce provides the children. Beyond that, though, students learn more about where their food comes from and the role farmers play in the process of moving food from the ground to the table. Children are often reluctant to try new foods, particularly vegetables. But when they are exposed to these foods over time, they learn to eat and even like them, forming habits that can eventually lead them to healthy lifestyles as adults. Cafeteria managers have heard many positive comments from students and can see that the children notice the difference between the processed and fresh foods. This is not the case for all students as a number of elementary students interviewed said they did not notice the fresh produce in their lunch. However, they all remarked that they noticed the posters about the farmers and the produce.
Farm-to-school programs also benefit the participating growers. They not only increase the number of outlets for selling their produce, they also expose a wider group of local consumers to their foods.
Jenkins said one of the biggest obstacles for the Fayetteville program is quantity. The participating farmers cannot grow enough to serve all the schools, so Jenkins says that the school district’s mission is to “get them to grow more.”
As the number of schools has grown, so has the problem of transporting the food to all three schools. When more schools are added to the program in the future, as Jenkins hopes, Lukens will no longer be able to handle the collection and distribution of the produce alone. Other obstacles include the increase in the price of the produce this last year as well as the short period for in-season foods. Because it is often difficult to predict which produce the farmers will have a surplus of in a given week, Food Services cannot easily plan menus, and cafeteria managers have the added challenge of making last-minute decisions on how to prepare the food. All of the Fayetteville school lunchrooms have their own kitchens, which make food preparation and last-minute menu additions easier than numerous schools nationwide that do not have their own. Many school districts have one central kitchen where all foods are cooked and packaged and then shipped out to individual schools.
Jenkins is hoping that the school district will be able to expand the program to include more schools and for more weeks of the year. She is also hoping to increase the educational opportunities for students through school gardens and more farmer visits to classrooms. The future of the program is also bright for other Arkansas schools. Jenkins met with great enthusiasm when she made a presentation about the Fayetteville program at the Arkansas Environmental Education Association.
The Fayetteville school district is also making other positive changes. Jenkins says that they try to serve one fresh food each day even though it is not locally grown, and they have instituted some innovative choices for the high school. Currently only 20 percent of high school students eat at the school, many of the rest opting to leave campus to seek out fast foods. To combat this, the high school has five or six options for lunch each day, including a “sub line” where for $2.10 a sandwich, students can create a sub made of bread baked fresh daily. They can also opt for fajita wraps or salads.
A less visible change but just as important is the way area schools are working together to improve delivery and distribution of bulk dry commodities. Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, and Fayetteville schools have been able to plan with each other and negotiate with the delivery companies to get bread and milk deliveries. All of this makes for a more efficient system for the Food Services office and the cafeteria managers. Bulk deliveries also increase efficiency. In the past the school district did not get deliveries in bulk, which created serious obstacles to distributing the foods to the schools and following the printed menu schedule. Now the district is receiving both dry commodities and frozen foods in bulk where they are stored in a central location.
Though schools nationwide are anxious to find ways to improve school lunch programs, they are bound by the federal government’s guidelines. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) began in 1946 with the intention of feeding the nation’s children as well as providing economic support to farmers. The United States Department of Agriculture oversees the program and develops the food pyramid we have grown accustomed to seeing. The pyramid was updated and re-packaged in 2005 and is now called “MyPyramid.” The USDA reports on its website that MyPyramid is a more individualized and interactive approach to a healthier lifestyle than the food guidelines introduced in 1992.
Jenkins says that the federal nutritional guidelines for the school lunch program are “good, but could be better.” The guidelines themselves have not been updated to match the new USDA food pyramid. For one, the guidelines allow for a large percentage of calories in processed foods, more than Jenkins would like. Overall, the school lunch is expected to contain a certain number of calories each day and provide one-third of a child’s nutrition in a week. Specific quantities of each food group are required and each school has to follow a particular menu plan.
But whatever one might think about its guidelines, the NSLP is feeding a lot of children who need the help. The USDA reports that 30 million children—about half of the nation’s schoolchildren—participated in the program in 2006 with over five billion lunches being served last year. Of that five billion, over 59 percent were offered free or at a reduced price. The cost of all these lunches? Over $7 billion. For a child to be eligible for the free lunch, his or her family’s income must be below 130 percent of the poverty level. Those families whose income falls between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level can receive reduced-price lunches.
The Arkansas Department of Education, Child Nutrition unit oversees the NSLP as well as the School Breakfast Program, the Special Milk Program, the Afterschool Snack Program, and the Summer Meals Program. Arkansas reported 345,716 participants in the NSLP alone in 2006. Arkansas schools received federal funds totaling $115.83 million and $1.65 million in state funds last year.
Like Lisa Jenkins, creative food service directors are finding ways to work within the federal guidelines while developing innovative ways to introduce locally grown, farm-fresh foods into school lunches. One of the most notable is Central Alternative High School in Appleton, Wisc. Officials there claim that students’ grades have improved, truancy is down, and students are more clearly focused on their school work. These improvements, they say, come as a result of a project of the Natural Ovens company, who underwrote the five-year project in 1997. The philosophy driving the program was that more nutritious foods would result in better-behaved students. By all accounts, the project has been successful and Appleton has been working to incorporate even small changes, such as removing all soda and candy machines, in all their schools.
Another successful Wisconsin program is called Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, a project developed by the REAP Food Group. This farm-to-school program serves Madison and area schools, and like the Fayetteville program, it brings locally grown foods into the schools. This program, however, has the added benefit of hands-on classroom activities intended to get students involved in the growing process in the hopes that students will also then be more eager to eat the products of their own labor.
In Massachusetts, six schools have partnered with a non-profit organization called Seeds of Solidarity whose aim is to bring education to poor neighborhoods to combat obesity and food insecurity. The organization began as Seeds of Leadership Garden, a summer and after-school gardening program. A USDA grant in 2003 enabled the program to develop gardens at individual schools. Project organizers involved the teachers in developing projects and curriculum involving the garden. Seeds of Solidarity has now grown to include three greenhouses where students raise and distribute over 1,500 organic vegetable seedlings to various community gardens.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in August 2006 that seven Marin County school districts are using a farm-to-school program but also have instituted a farmers’ market in the school yard where children can take home donated produce from a company called Marin Organic. This damaged or “less beautiful” produce might otherwise go waste. Along with the produce, students take home recipes and information about where the produce came from, thereby educating the parents as well.
Closer to home, Oklahoma passed a law this past summer instituting the Oklahoma Farm to School Program. Numerous schools across the state, particularly in Oklahoma City, have been piloting the project for several years. Schools will not be forced to participate but will receive help for developing programs if they choose to do so through the state’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. As with most programs of its kind, it is intended to benefit both schoolchildren and farmers.
It would have been hard for Arkansans to escape news of Governor Huckabee’s Healthy Arkansas initiatives in the last few years. The controversial charge to measure every child’s BMI even made the national news as did Huckabee’s own weight loss and marathon training. It would also be hard to escape news of America’s obesity epidemic and rising incidences of diabetes and other obesity-related diseases and disorders. Most experts in health and wellness would agree that educating children at an early age is key to combating these disorders. However, this education has to go beyond the traditional classroom lectures about health and the five food groups and into the lunchroom and out in the gardens where children can be exposed to and develop a taste for fresh foods. Through farm-to-school programs, schools have the opportunity to provide healthy food experiences and education to their students, experiences and education that students can take with them for a lifetime of healthy living.