If you haven’t eaten in a school cafeteria in a while, you might find yourself both relieved and horrified by its evolution. The ubiquitous Jell-O and canned green beans of yore are gone, but pizza and chicken nuggets still rule. Children as young as kindergartners are allowed to choose burgers and flavored milk (twenty-two grams of sugar per cup, as opposed to twelve grams for plain milk) day after day. Fresh produce—even a simple salad bar—is a rarity. And this in Georgia, which produces more market vegetables than all but three other states in America.
Why, given Georgia’s agricultural abundance, is it so hard to get more of those vegetables into our schools?
“Anyone who tells you it can’t be done is wrong. Schools make up stuff all the time and then tell you it’s the law,” says Ann Cooper, a Colorado chef, author, and nutrition advocate known as the Renegade Lunch Lady. Cooper, who recently visited Atlanta’s Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School, travels around the country speaking to parents, schools, and legislators—trying to make regionally grown, fresh foods the new normal in student lunchrooms. “When you feed kids healthy foods, they perform better, there are fewer behavioral issues, and kids can learn,” she says.
Even though the urgency couldn’t be greater (Georgia ranks number two in childhood obesity rates), serving locally grown produce is no simple goal. Modern school kitchens are designed to unpackage and reheat, so equipment for storing and preparing fresh foods—coolers, mechanical vegetable slicers and choppers, two-compartment produce-washing sinks—is missing. And kitchen workers may lack the training to prep large quantities of fresh produce.
Of course, school systems also struggle to stay within tight budgets. The federal government reimburses them $2.77 for each free lunch and $2.37 for each reduced-price lunch. In Georgia just over half of all students qualify for one or the other. According to a 2009 Georgia School Nutrition Association report, the state’s school cafeterias get 56 percent of their money from Uncle Sam—twice as much as they get from paid lunches. (State taxpayers fund a paltry 5 percent.)
In December 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the first major reworking of the federal school lunch program in fifteen years. The USDA promptly submitted new regulations that would have given schools an extra six cents a meal if they encouraged more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and less sodium. However, late last year, Congress bowed to pressure from groups such as ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods, and the American Frozen Food Institute and blocked the proposed rules, which would have added about fourteen cents to the cost of each lunch by USDA calculations.
Providing locally grown foods would likely cost even more. Occidental College surveyed existing farm-to-school initiatives in 2007 and found that locally sourced salad bar meals cost 19 percent more in one California district, while cooked-from-scratch meals doubled the price in an Oregon system.
There are also logistical obstacles. District nutrition directors design menus to meet USDA guidelines. Once menus are planned—usually months in advance—nutrition directors must follow federal bidding procedures for purchasing ingredients. The process can favor large, experienced vendors and reliably available foods, such as frozen vegetables—not to mention commodities, mostly meat and dairy, provided cheaply by the federal government. (Nutrition advocates charge that the feds use schools to absorb overproduction encouraged by their own farm subsidies—and that the food is usually overprocessed by the time it hits the plate.) Moreover, contracts are sometimes set long before buyers know what will be fresh and abundant months later.
Sourcing locally grown produce can challenge the system. Last school year, a beaver got into a field in Athens and destroyed a Bibb lettuce crop intended for Gwinnett County Public Schools; the supplier had to scramble to find another source. Measurements can differ. Farmers may sell by the bushel or bucket, but nutrition directors are used to dealing in pounds. And even deliveries can be tricky. Schools may be staffed to accept deliveries between 8 a.m. and noon, but a farmer may plan delivery routes around stocking grocery stores overnight.
“You’d think it would be really easy [to get more locally grown produce in the schools], but there are so many people who end up being the gatekeepers, and there are roadblocks that really shouldn’t happen,” says Ashley Rouse, who in 2010 cofounded Atlanta Farm to School, which tries to connect Atlanta Public Schools to local farms.