Farm-to-school programs are designed to provide school cafeterias with farm-fresh food. The benefits are clear: Sourcing school lunches from local farms provides kids with healthier options; it boosts the local agricultural community; and it has less of an impact on the environment, as produce travels shorter distances and requires fewer resources to reach consumers. To encourage the movement, the United States Department of Agriculture has initiated the Farm to School Grant Program, which distributes $5 million annually to school districts, food producers, non-profits and other food advocates. Late last month, program grantees gathered in Denver to discuss strategies for improving and strengthening farm-to-school efforts.
The Boulder Valley School District, a grantee of the USDA's program, has achieved considerable success under the leadership of chef Ann Cooper, director of Food Services there. With her help, the BVSD has installed locally-sourced salad bars in cafeterias that reach 4,000 children daily, while participation in farm-to-school programs overall has increased 16 percent in the last three years. Cooper, who has authored several books on food and food systems and founded the Chef Ann Foundation, spoke on a panel at the April gathering.
“I’ve cooked at the White House," Cooper said, "but feeding kids, nothing prepared me for how hard that would be.” It can take ten years to work a successful farm-to-school program through an existing food-service system before schools catch on to its benefits, she explained. For starters, some schools fear increased costs. But Cooper has practical advice for the financial challenges of switching to locally sourced, nutritious food: “You want to cut costs: cook.” Cooking in-house reduces the costs associated with value-added food that is prepared in advance. And if you prepare your own meals from a centralized kitchen, you can simultaneously reduce labor costs associated with preparing food. At BVSD, Cooper and her team produce meals for a dollar and quarter per student.
Zenobia Barlow, executive director for the California-based Center for Ecoliteracy, also spoke, detailing the efforts that have brought about California Thursdays – a weekly public-school program that provides almost a quarter of California’s K-12 students with locally sourced lunches every Thursday. Cooper said she could envision a similar situation in Colorado, given the excellence and enthusiasm of food-service providers here, the state could see “Colorado Thursdays” in five years.
But modifying a school cafeteria's menu requires tackling the entire food-service system. To change a child’s meal could mean altering the way the food is grown, procured, prepared and even discarded — and these changes can be difficult given the intense regulatory environment that protects children dining in school cafeterias. Add to that potential cultural and financial barriers that reformers face when proposing new ideas for meals, and the farm-to-school movement faces significant challenges. Still, the movement is growing — and even blooming in parts of Colorado.
To learn more about Chef Ann, visit chefannfoundation.org. To learn more about the USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program, visit fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool.