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Congress Could Put More Local Food Into Schools

Bipartisan flavor works in program’s favor

January 10, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Dana Goodwin/MLUI

Democrats and Republicans in Congress are united in their support for programs that put local farm foods into schools. Funding is the next step this spring in budget negotiations.

TRAVERSE CITY -- The kids rave about the taste. Local farmer Mark Doherty is making sales in a new market. And cooks in this northern Michigan school district are pleased to be serving his fresh, bursting-with-flavor apples to students in the lunch line.

It’s not surprising. Serving local farm foods to school kids is something just about everyone embraces. 

It makes sense, they say. The $200 million that Michigan schools spend each year on food is a potentially huge new market for farms and a saving grace for farmland, which struggling farmers often convert to subdivisions to stay afloat. Farm-to-school programs also give students a taste of the delicious fare grown in fields and orchards all around them. That local awareness, along with the quality difference in foods grown for eating rather than shipping, is key to improving kids’ diets with healthy and meaningful new choices.

But for hundreds of farm-to-school programs like Traverse City’s to grow, schools need help with major logistical challenges, such as preparing more food from scratch after years of heat-and-serve. Just getting local food from the field to the cafeteria, or from an apple into applesauce, can be a Herculean task. That’s because most “middleman” functions in today’s food system — from storage spaces to delivery trucks — are geared to moving food from coast to coast and from central warehouse to superstore. Few smaller-scale or locally oriented distribution companies and food processors are left to serve the new and growing demand from schools and others for fresher choices from nearby farms.

One potential source of help for spurring along this new farm-to-school market is a pool of competitive grants recently included in Congress’ reauthorization of the federal Child Nutrition Act — the first step in a long process for the possible new program. Now Congress, newly back in session, must decide whether to fulfill the Act’s pledge of $10 million for these grants in the face of a rising deficit and the costly conflict in Iraq.

If funded, the bill would provide two-year, $100,000 grants to approximately 100 school districts annually. With the money, schools could buy food from local farms, purchase equipment to store and process it, plan menus based on seasonally available food, train staff, develop business relationships with farmers, and improve food and farm education programs.

“We are hopeful that the program will be funded, but these are tight budgetary times,” said Sean Bonyun, communications director for U.S. Representative Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who sponsored the provision in the House.

The next step comes in February, when President George W. Bush releases his budget and Congressional budget committees get to work. After that, appropriations committees work on spending plans. Decisions about farm-to-school funding will likely come by early summer as part of finalizing the agriculture appropriations bill, said Mr. Bonyun of Congressman Upton’s office.

Bipartisan fare
One big card in favor of the farm-to-school proposal is that its common-sense approach to healthy farms and kids transcends the sharp liberal-conservative divide in politics.

Its perceived sensibleness spurred a Republican from Michigan to sponsor the farm-to-school measure in the House. A Democrat from Vermont, Senator Patrick Leahy, sponsored it in the Senate.

“In Fred’s eyes, there is no better policy than having Michigan farmers feed Michigan school children,” said Mr. Bonyun. “It is a benefit to the farmers and it is helping kids with their nutrition.”

As in other states, Michigan children are suffering a crisis in obesity and a startling rise in typically adult problems of elevated cholesterol levels, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Such chronic diseases cost states like Michigan — with high rates of diabetes and coronary disease — billions of dollars in business and state health care costs.

Co-sponsors of the farm-to-school bill during the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization ranged from liberal Ohio Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, to Congressman Tom Osborne, a conservative Republican from Nebraska. “It really runs the whole spectrum of political leanings,” Mr. Bonyun said.

The combination of help for farms and help for kids makes this program popular, said Sarah Borron, Washington policy associate for the Community Food Security Coalition, an advocacy group that lobbied hard for the measure. “I know very few, if any, Congressmen who think this is a bad idea,” she said. “People see this as a win-win.”

The Community Food Security Coalition is urging supporters of federal farm-to-school funding — moms, dads, farmers, school officials, health care advocates — to contact their representatives and senators in Congress now to get the issue on the lawmakers’ radar screens as they start making internal lists of funding priorities.

Domino effect
Many school districts in Michigan will be jumping at the chance of funding if Congress puts the full $10 million into the “Access to Local Foods and School Gardens” provision, or section 122, of the Child Nutrition Act. 

Michael Hamm, chairman of the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University, notes that a recent survey MSU conducted with the Michigan Department of Education shows the state’s school food services directors want to buy local food, and many of them already do. Of the 58 percent of directors who responded, 85 percent were “highly interested” in buying local foods if the wholesale distributor that already trucks food to the school district could also deliver the local foods.

Time and money is necessary for schools to take additional steps, he said. “Schools need to be able to think about how to develop systems in which their labor does not increase substantially, and where distribution doesn’t create a whole new set of headaches for them,” Dr. Hamm said. “They need to work through equipment needs, salad bar serving systems. It will take time for someone to figure out how it works, and time requires funds.”

Dr. Hamm notes that the key to success is funding projects that can break new ground and share their research and program development experience with other schools. Ms. Borron, at Community Food Security, agrees. She says full, $10 million funding would lead to a domino effect as 100 school districts come on line each year to find solutions. Even without such assistance, more than 400 farm-to-school programs have started nationwide since 1996, when only two existed.

Grassroots creativity
Farm-to-school programs are spreading because schools, farmers, parents, and community groups are just doing it, and opening new doors in the process.

Mr. Doherty, for example, started delivering his apples to Traverse City’s Central Grade School last fall, as part of a pilot project the school is conducting in collaboration with the Michigan Land Use Institute. The Institute aims to link small and medium sized family farms to profitable local markets as an alternative to the bankrupting conditions of global bulk commodity markets, which failed 17 percent, or 1,432 of Michigan’s smaller farms, between 1997-2002.

Mr. Doherty’s apples were so popular and competitively priced at Central Grade School that the district’s food service director, Kristen Misiak, negotiated a deal to expand his apple deliveries to other schools in Traverse City’s 23-school system, which spans a whopping 185-square miles. Mr. Doherty agreed to deliver to 14 schools in a central geographic area that he could handle.

Already there are signs that apple deliveries are just the beginning of local foods in the Traverse City district and that farmers and schools will figure out how to do it.

One of the schools on Mr. Doherty’s central route, for example, curiously began ordering twice as many apples. Mr. Doherty asked why, and learned that the school was sending the extra apples, via school mail truck, to one of the outlying schools not on his route. Cooks there wanted the opportunity to serve Mr. Doherty’s high-quality fruit, and they found their own way to get it.

Diane Connors, a journalist, is a writer and organizer with the Michigan Land Use Institute's Entrepreneurial Agriculture Project. Reach her at Diane@mlui.org.

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