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A school lunch revolution is taking shape around the country. Ketsup isn’t considered a vegetable any more. Mystery meat is out; high calorie foods are out. Nutrition is in.
To earn higher marks for nutrition, many states have adopted farm-to-school programs, adding fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to school lunch menus. In fact, FarmToSchool.org estimates there are some 2,224 farm-to-school programs operating in 45 states across the nation. The movement is still in its infancy in Utah, but is getting stronger as nutritionists and schools look for ways to improve the quality of school lunch menus.
“It’s a brand new idea in Utah, but a lot of folks are interested in it,” says Jim Goodwin, senior program officer for the Western Rural Development Center, which is funded by the USDA. Goodwin spends a large part of his time working on sustainability issues and says incorporating locally grown fruits and vegetables into school lunches is good for the school children, good for farmers and good for the economy—sustaining jobs, keeping money in the community, contributing to local prosperity and helping people stay closer to the sources of their food.
“Much of the food we eat travels an average of 1,200 to 1,500 miles before it gets to our plates. There are a lot of ramifications involved in transporting foods long distances that are not good for our environment,” he says. “We should always buy as much food locally as possible.”
Patricia Messer, a partner in the organic Late Bloomin' Heirlooms farm, which is a member of Utah’s Own, believes the farm-to-school program can help reconnect parents and children with the farming community.
“We have lost touch with our farming community,” she says. “Let’s not import everything from out of state when we can grow it ourselves.”
A Healthy Connection
Lunchboxers is a company that bills itself as “a healthy alternative to school lunch.” This year, Lunchboxers will serve an estimated 5,000 daily school lunches to approximately 55 charter and private schools in the state. The company has contracted with 10 farmers to provide produce, primarily corn, peaches, apples and pears, to its school lunch program.
“We are starting out our farm-to-school program moderately, but our goal is to use as much local produce as possible,” says Jeremy Glauser, director of business development for Lunchboxers. “Last year we did an end-of-year survey with parents and found that people are crying out for farm-to-school programs.”
Among its many virtues, the farm-to-school program is also an important educational initiative. Glauser says his organization has collaborated with local growers on field trips to the farms, so the school children can see how the fruits and vegetables they are eating are grown and where they come from.
“They can see what a fresh tomato looks like and how it is grown,” he says. “We are also bringing the growers into the schools for assemblies. This is just a fun program that circles around and affects everybody.”
Jordan School District is also piloting a farm-to-school program for its schools. “We believe our program, though on a small scale, will prove to be rewarding,” says Nutrition Services Director Jana Cruz.
The district is keenly interested in the educational aspects of the farm-to-school program. “We consistently stress the value of application in learning, and the same application so valuable in math and reading can and should be applied to nutrition,” Cruz says, explaining that when students don't connect daily nutrient choices with their own personal wellness, the message is lost.
“We wish to better apply these nutrient messages by reinforcing simplicity in foods and a back-to-basics approach where students connect with local farmers, building value in the meaning of nutritious choices, value in flavor, value in wellness and value in supporting our local economy,” Cruz adds.
To that end, the Jordan School District has created what it calls “Local Farmer Days,” connecting the classroom to the cafeteria—and to the farm.
“We are sending home colorful, informational postcards, supported by posters in the schools before each Local Farmer Day, which have great reminders, such as: ‘A 100-calorie serving of peas (about 3/4 cup) contains more protein than a whole egg or a tablespoon of peanut butter and has less than one gram of fat and no cholesterol,’” Cruz explains. “All will be aware—students, parents, teachers, administrators and staff on every level.”