Insights by Goldie: A report card: farm-to-cafeteria

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in September 2005


Reference to the “farm-to-cafeteria” program is in Section 122 of the Act, which incorporated and amended the National School Lunch Act. This section added language sub-headed “Access to Local Foods and School Gardens,” and specified that the Secretary of Agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):

“… may provide assistance, through competitive matching grants and technical assistance, to schools and nonprofit entities for projects that … improve access to local foods in schools and institutions participating in programs under this Act [and] the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 … through farm-to-cafeteria activities, including school gardens, [and] that may include the acquisition of food and appropriate equipment and the provision of training and education; …

“(and) are, at a minimum, designed to … procure local foods from small and medium-sized farms for school meals; and support school garden programs; … (and) support nutrition education activities or curriculum … that incorporates the participation of school children in farm-based agricultural education activities ….”

Additional language in the Act encourages development of “a sustained commitment to farm-to-cafeteria projects in the community by linking schools, state departments of agriculture, agricultural producers, parents and other community stakeholders …” and specifies such projects should each “require $100,000 or less in federal contributions” and “provide matching support … of cash or in-kind contributions (including facilities, equipment, or services provided by state and local governments and private sources).”

Finally, the Act stipulated, “there are authorized to be appropriated such sums as are necessary to carry out this subsection for each of the fiscal years 2004 through 2009.”

The potential
The farm-to-cafeteria/school concept has been broadly supported across the political spectrum. It has been hailed as a model, bi-partisan effort that substantially can help small and medium-sized farmers across the country benefit from greater access to their community school food services. Parent groups and public health advisors embraced it, understanding the critical need to improve childhood nutrition. It has been an additional benefit promised to the millions of low-income seniors who participate in subsidized meals.

A matter of funding
Unfortunately, when Congress reconvenes in September, the fate of this visionary, win-win, farm-to-cafeteria/school concept is in danger of being lose-lose, since it may not be put forward for necessary appropriations, estimated at $10 million, to implement it nationally. Ironically, the language of the act could be judged as creating an all-new program — and this administration has made it quite clear that there’ll be no new programs funded in this budget.

The plan, in truth, actually just clarifies the role of the USDA. It says the USDA may act to provide fresher and more nutritious local foods, effective nutrition education, and school gardens and curriculum with an expanded emphasis on how food is produced.

If funding isn’t granted, it would be a significant setback. But exciting and meaningful school food changes are in process even without top-down federal funding. In communities across the country, including several in our area, parents and community groups have been organizing and meeting, many for more than a year, promoting awareness of issues, and working on new nutrition and health policies. The sale of sugary sodas and fat-drenched snack foods have been scaled back — or discontinued altogether — in many districts, including the Seattle schools a year ago.

All school districts in this state were given a mandate last year to review their school food policies, affirm or rewrite them, and submit approved policies by August 1, 2005. News from various communities recently indicates that the discussions have been lively — and sometimes quite heated. One news report quoted at least two school board members as taking the position that school authorities have enough to do and should have no responsibility to exercise control over food choices offered in schools. Amazing.

There are differing approaches to what constitutes nutritious foods (for instance, some speak of 35 percent fat maximum while others say 40 percent). But the important aspect is that parents and communities are exchanging ideas and generally agree that school food quality matters and that changes can be made.

Most often reported are the discussions of how to replace lost revenues when soda pop and other junk food sales are banned or restricted to various hours that do not compete with more nutritious school foods. The unreported answer, of course, is that swapping in healthier choices has been shown in some districts to produce an equivalent amount of revenue.

A seismic shift in overall food consciousness has been emerging in the past 10 or 15 years as U-pick farms, backyard gardens, P-patches and seasonal farmers markets have all expanded. PCC has long been a leader by providing fresh, local and seasonal organic produce direct from the farms all year long.

As more and more people discover the superior flavors, variety and nutrition of vegetables, eggs, cheeses, meats and other foods not produced by factory farms — nor grown with substances or practices harmful to the environment, the farmers and consumers — the power of “real” foods is rippling across the culture.

That growing awareness translates to a determination that children deserve not only the most nutritious, tasty food choices, but that we also must ensure they understand, literally from the ground up, how that food comes to be. Providing school gardens and other farm and market experiences of growing plants and animals are not just “nice ideas” — they are essential to educating children. They are essential to preparing today’s children to understand and participate in creating a secure food future for themselves tomorrow.

There’s work to be done, but much is being accomplished. I believe that progress will continue and that change is coming to a school cafeteria near you, too.

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