Three schools, one week, 75 percent local food

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School lunches are rarely something to write home about, but three lucky elementary schools in the state are going to have one really great lunch week this spring. They’ll serve as hosts for a pilot project called “Feed My School for a Week.”

A joint initiative of the Georgia departments of agriculture and education, the project will attempt to serve at least 75 percent Georgia-grown food for a full week at schools in Hall, Bleckley and Colquitt counties. The school systems will choose their representative elementary schools.

“Feed My School for a Week” is a big sign that state officials are starting to take the farm to school movement seriously.

If you’ve got school-age children and you’re interested in local food, then you’ve most likely heard of farm to school, the grass-roots movement that seeks to connect schools with local farms in order to improve student nutrition. Common farm to school initiatives include building edible gardens at schools, inviting farmers to give talks at schools, inviting chefs to give produce cooking demonstrations at schools, and seeking to include locally grown food in school lunch programs. That last one’s the real doozy, as federal guidelines and established purchasing practices make it very hard for schools and small farms to do business together.

Why? Because school nutrition directors plan their entire menus months ahead of time, taking into account budgetary restrictions, calorie limitations, and rules about how much protein, fat, salt, vegetables, grains, etc., should appear on each plate, each day. Before they buy, they must consider competitive bids. So it’s complicated to work with a local farmer who may or may not be able to provide enough fresh broccoli for an entire district on exactly the right day for the most competitive price. From the school nutrition director’s point of view, it’s just a lot easier to order frozen broccoli for the entire school year from the distributors she’s always used.

Putting local food in three schools for one week is a good start, says Ashley Rouse, farm to school outreach coordinator with the nonprofit Georgia Organics. “It’s going to be a great opportunity to educate people on what farm to school really is, and to get nutrition directors comfortable with engaging farmers, and get them used to working with each other,” says Rouse, also a founder of Atlanta Farm to School. “Hopefully they will spread some of that knowledge to some of the schools in those regions, and they’ll be able to grow the program throughout each region.”

But there’s a long ways to go before all schools regularly serve up mostly Georgia-grown food in their cafeterias. School nutrition directors and farmers need help learning how to work with one another, to everyone’s benefit—especially the children’s. Georgia Organics advocates the creation of a farm-to-school position at the state Department of Education to facilitate the process.

Georgia is the fourth largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the nation. It also has the nation’s second highest rate of childhood obesity. We should all be doing everything we can to enable that first figure to cancel out the second.

Want to learn more about the farm to school movement? Check out this special section of the Georgia Organics website.

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