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Farm Fresh School Lunches Can Cost More, but Worth It

Local food sells itself

March 24, 2006 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Dana Goodwin/MLUI

When schools launch local food programs, they often receive strong community support, including private donations to cover start-up costs.

Last fall, when school cooks from rural Benzie County Central Schools turned two dozen eggs from a neighbor's farm into a large omelet, the kids instantly knew that something was delightfully different from the rubbery, frozen, pre-cooked eggs the schools usually just heat and serve for breakfast.

“The kitchen staff was tickled,” recalls Noreen Henry, the district’s food service director, who arranged the taste test for middle and senior high schoolers. “The kids really enjoyed the taste.”

But that extra flavor—along with the ability for schools to contribute to the local economy, preserve farm land, and connect children to how healthy food is grown—comes with a price tag. Sometimes, local farms can offer schools their products at prices competitive with those offered by large food distribution companies. Not always, though.

Benzie’s breakfast with local eggs, for example, cost 11 cents more a meal than it would have with eggs from a statewide food service. The eggs, from Paul May’s eight-acre farm near the Lake Michigan town of Frankfort, came from the 125 chickens who wander freely in a fenced-in yard outside his chicken coop. The cheaper, industrially produced eggs the school usually buys come from thousands of chicken stacked in tiers of small cages, where they cannot peck for the bugs, seeds, and grains that give free range eggs and meat their flavor.

School food service directors like Mrs. Henry, whose husband grows apples in Benzie County, recognize this dilemma, but they’re cash-strapped too. That’s why, across the country, parent groups, school officials, and other interested community members are finding creative ways to cover higher start-up costs to serve local farm foods until programs can succeed on their own.

And the good news is that they can—because the quality of local farm products sells itself and can lead to financial stability if schools, students, and farmers can just get a little help from their friends.

Better Food Attracts More Cafeteria Customers
The nation’s first known farm-to-school effort, in Santa Monica, Calif., is a good example of how the quality of fresh local farm foods can eventually lead to solid finances.

Rodney Taylor, the district’s former food service director, said that at one school the number of students choosing the salad bar skyrocketed from 10 to 180 after the district replaced pre-packaged salad ingredients with locally grown lettuce and other delectable vegetables. Each new child eating in the cafeteria meant more money coming to the school food budget instead of the local fast food joint or the grocery store for peanut butter and jelly for sack lunches. Plus, the federal government contributes to school food budgets based on the number of students who eat there.

“You change the perceived value of the meals with the children and their parents,” Mr. Taylor said. “You gain the trust of the parents, so now those parents who are sending their kids with packed lunches are going to send those kids to school lunch.”

Teachers also started patronizing the cafeteria after the meals improved. And they pay even more than students or the federal government for a full-price lunch. Here’s how big small numbers can be: At California’s Riverside public schools, where Mr. Taylor now works as food service director, only two teachers ate lunch in the cafeteria at one school before he launched a local salad bar there. In just the first month of the new, tasty salads, that grew to 13. In a year’s time the extra $3 these teachers paid at each meal would bring in $5,940, enough to pay for the extra labor required for the new salad bar.

Parents Want Local Food, Healthier Kids
But the entire program might never have taken off if not for the help of parents who were convinced that offering fresh, local food would entice kids to make healthier food choices, Mr. Taylor said.

In Santa Monica, for example, it cost about $5,000 per school for upgraded salad bar equipment. Mr. Taylor enlisted help from the Parent Teacher Association, which raised about $30,000.

“If you want to make something happen, you will find a way,” Mr. Taylor said. “There is no doubt you will need start-up funding. But there is also no doubt that you can get it.”

Other creative ideas:

  • In Olympia, Wash., the district eliminated sugary desserts that used to be offered twice a week, and funneled the money instead to cover most of the additional costs of offering children organic fruits and vegetables in a salad bar—products that cost 30 to 60 percent more than their non-organic counterparts. The results: Students in two elementary schools ate between 25 and 29 percent more fruits and vegetables in the first year, according to a report co-authored by the district’s child nutrition supervisor.
  • In Hopkins, Minn., the school food service staff is taking good eats to the community in order to boost revenues, according to JoAnne Berkenkamp, a consultant who released a report in January for the University of Minnesota on opportunities and barriers to greater use of locally-grown produce in public schools. The Hopkins district recently opened a Wetlands Café, a small restaurant open both to district staff and the wider community. It offers upscale sandwiches, salads, and pizzas; and the staff is optimistic that it will turn a profit within two years.
  • And in Traverse City, Mich., just up the road from the Benzie schools, a member of the community sent a $500 check for the school food service director to purchase more local apples after viewing a television news report on farm-to-cafeteria efforts there—a lesson that telling this delicious, upbeat story to the community pays off.

Mr. Taylor, in California, is a big believer in that.

“Market your program,” he said. “Make sure you tell everyone. At PTA meetings, I was there with the salad bar. We took it to board meetings.”

Beyond Bake Sales
But holding a bake sale—even a sophisticated one—won’t by itself be enough to help schools and farms turn local farm lunches into routine events.

There are still plenty of tough issues to tackle, such as the local storage, packaging, and distribution that increasing local sales requires. Currently, most of these activities funnel farm products to large food distribution companies in bulk commodity quantities, which means that farms remain anonymous and small to mid-size farms are often shut out. In addition, school food service directors often need assistance locating and creating business relationships with local farmers.

But nationwide, in what is a growing movement, grants from community, family, and corporate foundations are often providing the funds for schools, farms, and nonprofit groups to put in the staff time and make equipment purchases to solve these problems. The funds are also used to establish hands-on food and farm activities for kids, which, experience shows, increases their interest in eating healthy foods.

Stimulating healthy eating, after all, is a big part of what farm-to-cafeteria programs are about. Benzie’s delicious experiment is part of a national trend that now includes nearly 400 school districts in 22 states. Schools are interested because of students’ soaring obesity rates, which lead to higher diabetes and heart disease rates. Benzie is no exception: According to state health officials, in 2002 14.1 percent of children ages two to five in the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department’s Women, Infant, and Children program were already overweight, compared to 12.4 percent statewide. And another 17.1 percent were at risk of becoming overweight, compared to 15.7 percent statewide.

That, say community health leaders, is unacceptable. As a result, school food service, health department nurses, parents, and others in the community have created the Benzie County Wellness and Health Coalition, and one of their top priorities is getting fresh local foods from neighbor farms into their schools.

In nearby Frankfort, the Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital Auxiliary is among the first to come to the plate to get more local foods on school plates. The auxiliary has created a small grant fund to help the two Benzie school districts improve school menus with local farm foods.

For smaller farms like Mr. May’s, the effort could build important new markets. Benzie County’s two school districts spend about $363,000 annually serving nearly 2,600 students. Steve Fouch, Benzie County’s Michigan State University Extension director, sees school and other local markets growing in importance for small and mid-size farmers as fuel costs rise. And those are the kind of farms whose numbers are growing in Benzie. According to Mr. Fouch, 165 growers farmed an average 149 acres each in 1997, a figure that changed to 181 growers working an average 127 acres each in 2002.

“I think local marketing in our area will be not only popular, but a necessity, down the road.” he said. “We have a wonderful area with lots of natural beauty. What an opportunity to be able to buy from and support our local farmers.”

If the experiences in other schools are any test, that could also spell many more delicious omelets for Benzie students.

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist and onetime farmers market manager, coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s farm-to-cafeteria program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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