Local Lunch

Posted Aug. 01, 2010, at 7:35 p.m.

When you have the same agency responsible both for promoting the country’s farmers and running the school lunch program, you end up with some less than desirable results. Schoolkids, for example, end up the recipients of surplus crops from distant farms rather than fresh food from local ones.

While this might be good for major agribusinesses, it hasn’t done much for local farmers or, more important, kids’ health.

Rep. Chellie Pingree has introduced a bill that would take a small step toward a more logical system that would benefit farmers and schoolchildren.

Of the federal funding schools receive for their food programs, the largest chunk — about 80 percent — goes toward the salaries of lunchroom personnel and other nonfood expenses such as equipment and supplies. The remaining 20 percent is for commodities — i.e. food — but it must be spent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that buys up and disperses surplus U.S. crops, presumably to help American farmers.

Rep. Pingree’s bill would allow schools to use half this commodity money to buy food from local sources.

“On average, an apple travels 1,500 miles from farm to school. This bill gives schools the freedom to buy apples from their neighbors and keep every dollar spent in the community instead of traveling across the country and back,” Rep. Pingree said earlier this month when she introduced her bill. “This legislation will not only bring healthier food to our schools but also pump money into local economies.”

The Portland School Department is participating in a USDA Sustainable Agricultural Research Education grant, which has allowed it to buy more local foods. The department used local apples for its lunches and snacks, strawberries for breakfast breads and shortcake, carrots for its salad bar, to-matoes for salads and sandwiches and including summer squash in its pasta sauce meant it needed less salt.

The grant, awarded last year, also aims to address concerns such as schools limited time available to prepare foods and their need for a year-round supply of fruits and vegetables.

Portland’s experience shows that incorporating local food doesn’t require major changes and can lead to more healthful meals. More nutritious, less caloric meals are especially important as the obesity rate in Maine, and across the country, is rising, especially among children.

Nationally, about 16 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17 are obese, which is defined as having a body mass index in the 95th percentile or higher. That is 10 percent higher than in 2003. A 2007 Maine Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 13 percent of the state’s high school stu-dents were obese.

Getting more healthful, local foods into schools is good for Maine kids and farmers.

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