Ramping up Farm to School in “Healthy Schools”

Could a centralized storage, processing and distribution kitchen be key to providing wholesome, local produce to the District’s school children?

“Healthy Schools” legislation pending before the D.C. Council would require that city schools use locally grown farm goods in school meals “whenever possible.” With some 60,000 students to be fed on a daily basis, that certainly would represent a boon to the local farm economy. But is it feasible?  How can we convince farmers to bring their products into the District?  And how can we store vegetables from a growing season that doesn’t exactly coincide with the school year?  How can we get these local foods to schools for an affordable price?

Farm to School stakeholders met to discuss with staff for Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), author of the “Healthy Schools” bill, how legislation could encourage farm to school programs in the District, and solve some of the issues facing existing food programs.  A diverse crowd filled a conference room in the Wilson building last Thursday – food service providers, a farmer, the Director of  Office of the State Superintendent’s Wellness and Nutrition division, Cooperative Extension Service agents, a farmers’ market director, and others.

D.C. Central Kitchen staff were among those who added an important voice to the meeting.  DCCK has been developing its own system for gathering and processing produce from farms in the Shenandoah Valley and distributing them to the 5,000 clients it feeds daily. Representatives from DCCK described how they chop, vacuum-pack and freeze fresh farm goods on a regular basis, both for serving city shelters and in their school food service operation at Washington Jesuit Academy.

There was no doubt that Councilmember Cheh’s office was impressed with the descriptions of the cost-effective operational model that Central Kitchen has created – especially the impact the program has had on schoolchildren they serve.  If Mary Cheh’s staff wants to get serious about getting more healthful, local foods into D.C. schools, creating a scaled-up version of DCCK’s transport/storage/processing facility should be high on their agenda.

A few ideas developed throughout the meeting.  Top of the list was the possibility of the city providing a warehouse where this kind of processing modeled by D.C. Central Kitchen could be ramped up to match the needs of District schools. There are solutions to  farm to school logistical issues (transport, storage, processing, etc.) that can be dealt with in the private and non-profit sector without being codified into law, however.

I think everyone agreed that setting stringent requirements that local farm goods be “sustainably” produced, as contained in the current bill, may be asking too much, since no precise definition seems to exist for what constitutes “sustainable.” Better, we think, to require schools to disclose where their foods are coming from, and simply urge that they be produced according to eco-friendly principles.

We also agreed that an across-the-board increase in school meal reimbursements from the D.C. government is needed to cover the farm-to-school preferences and other nutrition requirements included in the bill, perhaps as much as 12 cents or more per meal. And we need to mandate that schools and other organizations collaborate in promoting the farm-to-school idea and teaching it in the schools.

This working group meeting was a breakthrough for our efforts to get a farm-to-school program up and running here in the District. Mary Cheh and her staff gave us a great excuse to bring the right people together to have a real discussion, and we credit them immensely for it.

The legislation is headed for public hearings next month.

Andrea Northup is coordinator of the D.C. Farm to School Network

Written by Andrea Northup

4 Comments

  • Carl G Rollins says:

    Andrea:

    After clarifying our positions, I agree with you that DC schools should serve sustainable, local foods “whenever possible” (but not linked to extra reimbursements for doing so). And as you suggest, the question becomes what is the standard to be used.

    I like these:

    1) “agricultural and food systems that are economically viable, conserve natural resources and biodiversity, and enhance the quality of life” (University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program)

    2) “Such systems… must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound” (USDA Reference Brief); and

    3) “make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls…” (id.)

    You could easily mention integrated pest management (IPM).

    I guess we should stop meeting like this on a message board.

    Carl

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