Many schools will mark Maine harvest week by serving locally grown food for lunch. This is a great gesture, but it begs the question of where the food comes from during the rest of the year.
Schools have listed Maine apples, Maine broccoli and Maine eggs on their lunch menus for recent and coming days. One district had the entire lunch provided by local farms for one day.
Introducing fresh, local produce to schoolchildren is a good way to increase knowledge about what is available locally and to encourage kids to eat more healthful foods. But it will take more than a day of food from the farm or a week of labeling foods from Maine to make a difference.
Although the Department of Education promotes the Farm to School initiative, decisions about what to feed in school cafeterias and where to buy it are made locally. Most districts buy their foods through distributors. Much of it is packaged and processed food.
Cost is often a concern when schools consider buying food from local farmers and vendors. But there are creative ways to reduce costs. Walter Beesley, who oversees school nutrition at the Department of Education, suggests that central dropoffs, perhaps at a central kitchen, can reduce transportation costs, as can using regular school bus routes as means to bring produce to school. Districts can also work with local university and college campuses and hospitals on bulk purchases.
Another way to look at the cost issue is to consider that local farms pay taxes that support local schools and often employ local people while also preserving important open space. The Department of Education estimates it takes 17 times more petroleum to import food from out of state than to buy it locally.
The Legislature this year passed a resolve to create a working group to improve the Farm to School initiative. A formal study isn’t needed. Instead, the Department of Education should work with districts to overcome their concerns about buying local food. For example, districts that buy a variety of food from local farmers can be used as models for others. Likewise with innovative partnerships.
The federal government can also help. Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture buys millions of pounds of surplus meat and cheese and distributes it to schools. It doesn’t do this with fruits and vegetables.
The same department found that 80 percent of schools serve too much high-fat food. They often do it because it is less costly than buying and serving fresh, lower-fat foods.
Congress will soon be revising the Child Nutrition Act, which regulates the federal school lunch program. Ensuring schoolchildren get more fresh, local food should be a priority.