I think of good healthy food, I don't usually think of food served in
school cafeterias. A typical lunch in my high school usually consisted
of fish sticks, fries with gravy, and half-baked chocolate chip
cookies. Not very healthy, and definitely not very local.
While researching local
food systems for a school project, I came across a program that is
trying to change school cafeterias by serving fresh local products.
"Farm-to-Cafeteria" programs connect institutions with local
farmers and promote and serve locally-produced foods in cafeterias of
K-12 schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, and
other institutions. Local foods purchases include fruits and
vegetables, eggs, honey, meat, beans, and milk products. Local foods
are included in salad bars, in main meals, in "all-local"
catering projects, and at special events such as "locally-grown
Students helping out with haying.
(photo: Marcelle Thibodeau)
In addition to purchasing
and serving local foods, Farm-to-Cafeteria programs often include
educational components about local food and farming issues. This is
done by hosting special event meals in collaboration with local farm
organizations, by integrating local food issues into the curriculum,
by starting school gardens and composting projects, and by organizing
field trips to local farms or classroom visits by farmers
Farm-to-Cafeteria programs can increase the amount of products that a
farmer can sell locally and can provide farmers with the opportunity
to sell larger quantities of products to single buyers. Institutional
buyers tend to offer lower prices than farmers would receive in retail
outlets like farmers' markets; however, these prices are still higher
than wholesale prices. The lower prices can be balanced by an increase
in sales at farmers' markets as Farm-to-Cafeteria programs promote a
wider awareness of local farmers' markets and other local food
outlets. Parents will often learn about local farmers' markets through
Farm-to-Cafeteria programs. Since small children prefer smaller fruits
and vegetables, selling to elementary schools also allows farmers to
sell produce in sizes that normally would not sell.
Student helping out.
(Photo: Jamie Simpson)
There are two major trends
that have influenced schools to seek out local food for their
cafeterias. The first trend is the increase in obesity in North
American youth; the second is the increasing amount of unhealthy food
and drinks (e.g., junk food vending machines, fast-food outlets)
available in schools. Food service directors feel that by increasing
local food availability in their cafeterias, they will be able to
reverse these trends.
When schools begin
integrating local food into their menus and their curriculum, students
benefit in many ways. When the local food system is used as a teaching
tool, students can begin to see the connections between their food
choices and the environment. They can see how local foods need less
packaging and therefore conserve natural resources. When farms visits
are organized, students learn about the local farm economy and begin
to make real-life connections to their geography, history, and social
studies lessons. When students are asked to help with food preparation
and composting, their lessons in nutrition, science, and math take on
a real-life aspect.
(Photo: Jamie Simpson)
food in schools helps to reduce some of the negative impacts of our
global agricultural system. Currently in North America, it is
estimated that our food travels between 2500 and 4000 miles before
reaching our plates. To reach its destination, food is shipped by
trucks, cargo ships, trains, and planes, all of which contribute to
greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. It has been estimated that
an average North American diet composed of imported ingredients can
generate four times the greenhouse gas emissions than an equivalent
diet composed of local ingredients. In the global food system, energy
is also needed to process and refrigerate food for long-distance
transport and to produce the packaging needed for such travel. Serving
local food in cafeterias can help reduce these environmental costs by
shortening Food Miles and decreasing processing and packaging needs.
As with other direct
marketing approaches, selling to schools has its own peculiarities.
Current purchasing arrangements are not geared towards small-scale,
local farms. Food service directors at schools are accustomed to
dealing with only a handful of distributors, and receiving the
majority of their fruits and vegetables from one vendor. These
distributors usually make large volume deliveries of fresh food at
least once a week. Schools are also accustomed to paying wholesale
prices for food, and paying for goods 30 to 90 days after delivery.
This payment arrangement is different than, for example, farmers'
markets where farmers receive immediate payment at retail prices.
(Photo: Marcelle Thibodeau)
Menus in school cafeterias
are usually developed with the assumption that all ingredients will be
available when needed, regardless of the time of the year. The
schools' purchasing season is from September to June, whereas the main
growing season for fruits and vegetables in most of North America is
from May to October. This issue of seasonality can be addressed in
various ways. Food service directors can try to design menus that will
take advantage of seasonal products. Both farmers and schools can
increase the amount of local food available by processing food through
drying, canning, and freezing so it can be used during the winter.
Farmers can also lengthen their growing season by using techniques
such as cold-frames, greenhouses, row covers, and succession cropping.
I hope that when my kids
go to school they'll be able to eat a lunch of grilled local chicken
breast, with roasted local potatoes and a side salad of local greens,
finished off with a big glass of apple juice from the farm down the