Fresh Food for School Kids Is A Right Not A Privilege
First it was the farm-to-table movement that reinvigorated the once-traditional relationship between the farmer and the food we eat. Now there is a groundswell of support across the country for farm-to-school programs. In a lot of ways it just makes sense—as adults realize the health benefits of fresh, unprocessed foods and the fiscal benefits of supporting family farms and the local economy, there is also the realization that these benefits translate to the school system, both in the cafeteria and in the classroom.
But unlike farmers’ markets, or community-supported agriculture programs, farm-to-school programs are encountering maddening barriers. Lately there’s been an effort to document the challenges and it’s contributed significantly to both our understanding and our frustration. Many communities embrace the vision to teach children the pleasures of fresh food, instill healthy eating habits to combat the epidemic of obesity and diabetes and to support local agriculture. It should be a no-brainer, but in our community it’s not. The obstacles are formidable; some of them are understandable. But either way they lack rationality.
Last April, the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Project, in partnership with the Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group (REAP) and the UW–Madison Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems, set out to identify the structural challenges faced by farm-to-school initiatives. Researchers Jack Kloppenburg, Doug Wubben and Miriam Grunes found roughly four hundred similar projects in twenty-two states. The results of the study showed that while farm-to-school is most effective in the classroom it has struggled to gain acceptance in the lunchroom, and consequently, has not created a sustainable market for farmers.
What’s so disappointing is that this is particularly true here in Madison. The Homegrown Lunch program was initiated in the Madison Metropolitan School District in 2002. An advisory committee was formed, three schools were chosen as pilot schools and each was paired with a farmer. But WHL reports that while it “effectively linked the land with the classroom, it has been less successful at fulfilling its own slogan of ‘linking the land and the lunchroom.’” Why? WHL identified handicaps including the overarching food culture (read: marketing, advertising and corn-based processing); industrialized and quasi-private school-food services; price, procurement and supply issues; and the lack of facilities to process the fresh food. In other words, deeply rooted ways of thinking and doing on the one hand and budget on the other, both of which, according to many, are intractable.
We don’t buy it. Most of these problems can be overcome with policy solutions. The rest can be solved by civic will. There’s simply no reason we can’t be successful bringing food into the classrooms as well as on lunch trays.
It seems the logistical challenges are more a result of staff and/or administrative attitudes than facilities. And the success of the classroom component of the program indicates children are receptive to learning about healthy eating, fresh foods and the pleasures of the table. In fact, there is evidence to support these conclusions. A University of Minnesota study of 330 public school districts in the state over five years found that school lunch sales don’t decline when healthier meals are served and that healthier lunches don’t necessarily cost schools more to produce. In our area, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch’s analysis of its activities during the 2007–08 school year shows very encouraging success in the Evansville, Mt. Horeb, Monona Grove and Waunakee school districts. In addition, the classroom snack program continues in four Madison schools and fresh-food education efforts are strong at a number of others.
Still, the successful integration of fresh food into the lunchrooms in area schools should shame Madison into making it happen here. We’re fortunate to have advocates like Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, REAP and the UW, but a little citizen pressure wouldn’t hurt. As important as local food and local farms are to our economy and quality of life, it makes no sense the genuine article is missing from our city’s schools.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Madison Magazine - January 2008|