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Obama Stimulus Targets Fresh, Local Food

Guidelines encourage farm-to-school programs

March 19, 2009 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Schools in Davis, Calif., were among the first to feature fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables in their student cafeterias.
The Obama administration’s stimulus package has good news for schools that need new kitchen equipment but can’t afford it: They might get some federal money to buy some of that equipment, as long as they are quick on the draw.

Thanks to innovative policies already in place in their states, some Michigan and Wisconsin school officials are indeed ready to act. They and their states intend on making their stimulus dollars do triple duty: sending new business to equipment suppliers, getting more fresh food onto kids’ cafeteria plates, and creating new markets for local farmers.

Michael Murray, superintendent of Suttons Bay schools, a tiny Lake Michigan port town in northwest Lower Michigan, is one of those officials, and he’s crossing his fingers that his school gets stimulus money to make those three things happen.

The stimulus funds for school kitchen equipment funds comes at a good time in Michigan: There’s heightened interest across the state in so-called farm-to-school programs.

Late last year, the state passed legislation that eliminated a barrier to buying, selling, and serving locally grown food in schools and charged the state’s departments of agriculture and education with taking steps to actively help out. For example, the new laws require the Department of Education to encourage schools building new facilities to consider including real kitchens in them—ones that, unlike many school kitchens today, are able to prepare fresh food and provide opportunities for hands-on learning.

The stimulus package doesn’t pay for construction, but it would provide Michigan schools nearly $2.6 million for kitchen equipment.

And there’s no time to waste: The feds want the grants awarded to schools by June and spent by September.

On, Wisconsin!
Things are moving ahead quickly in Wisconsin, too. On Monday, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which is administering the federal program for its schools, got permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to include in its grant application guidelines an expanded description of equipment that schools can propose buying with the grant dollars:

"Equipment that enables Wisconsin schools to use locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The guidelines list some examples: Additional refrigeration units, two-compartment produce-washing sinks, serving line and salad bar equipment, mechanical potato peelers, and mechanical vegetable slicers and choppers.

“We are delighted,” said Julie Cox, Public Health Nutritionist with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. She will administer the federal grant in her state. “Purchasing local fresh fruits and vegetables is good for our economy, good for nutrition, and good for educating our students to know where their food comes from. It doesn’t grow in grocery stores.

“This seemed a natural place to encourage schools to think about that,” she added. “This is a real gift for schools to be able to purchase equipment that they couldn’t dream of having, and to make the labor of preparing fresh food possible.”

Promoting a Good Idea
The guideline that Wisconsin added to the federal program comes on the heels of four others that Washington officials had already established. According to a March 9 U.S. Department of Agriculture memo to state education agencies, those four allow applications for equipment that:

  • Upgrades kitchens for energy efficiency, like new walk-in freezers;
  • Assures food safety, like hot and cold serving stations;
  • Promotes healthy cooking by eliminating such things as deep fryers; or
  • Expands the number of students who eat school meals by, for example, making better use of crowded cafeterias or alternative places to dine.

The program also gives top priority to schools in which at least 50 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, so kids from the most financially strapped districts benefit.

Schools that want to serve locally grown food could have qualified under the feds’ existing four categories, but it wasn’t stated explicitly. Wisconsin wanted to “bring more attention to it” by calling it out, Ms. Cox said.

Michigan also plans to call attention to the farm-to-school opportunity, according to Mary Ann Chartrand, the state education department’s director of grants coordination and school support.

“The Michigan Department of Education will make it known to eligible applicants that an appropriate use of the funds for the grant is the purchase of equipment that would enhance farm-to-school efforts,” Ms. Chartrand said, citing types of equipment similar to those that the Wisconsin guideline approved. A “heads-up” notice will go out to food service directors within days, and the grant application will be available within a month, she said.

Wisconsin officials also will post a longer list of the types of equipment schools might consider purchasing that would help them prepare more locally grown fruits and vegetables, she said. In addition, Wisconsin will set up a review panel that includes advocates experienced in farm-to-school programs and experts in fresh-food service equipment.

Making Plans, Compiling Lists
Meanwhile, in Suttons Bay, Superintendent Murray praised the approach Michigan and Wisconsin are adopting. Just last year Mr. Murray’s school system decided to shift to fresh-food cooking with locally grown products, after years of serving largely “heat and serve” pre-packaged, often highly processed foods.

But the cost of retrofitting the school district’s elementary and high school kitchens can be prohibitive. That is why Mr. Murray watches for state or federal funding sources and even scouts restaurant auctions for low-cost equipment. It is also why he’s glad Michigan officials will notify eligible schools that they can apply for funds to advance farm-to-school programs, because they might not have otherwise considered that possibility.

He pointed to requirement in the Michigan farm-to-school legislation that state officials encourage schools to at least consider including kitchens appropriate for fresh food preparation in their new building projects. He noted that the provision would have made a world of difference for his district several years ago, when it built a new high school.

It is also a good idea to publish a list of equipment that can help food service staff cut labor costs for preparing food from scratch, he said. He received such a list from Gene Peyerk, the food service director at nearby Glen Lake Community Schools, who has shifted his cafeteria meals to almost all scratch cooking, to great student acclaim.

Mr. Murray’s wish list includes large vats for making fresh soups and pasta sauces, vegetable steamers, walk-in coolers to preserve the nutritional quality and flavor of fresh fruits and vegetables, and slicing equipment to make quick work of items like apple slices, which students gobble up much more quickly than whole apples.

Mr. Murray hopes to add this equipment to his elementary school kitchen, which is older and has the space. The high school kitchen—the newer one built just for heat and serve—will require new construction.

“This wouldn’t solve all of our problems, but it would be an important step because we would be starting with our younger kids and changing how they eat, developing the eating habits of the very young,” he said.

High school students, in fact, have already rallied around the idea of eating healthier and have flocked to the fresh fruit and vegetable snacks the school now offers before after-school activities, he said. This year the district also ditched vending machines with junk food.

And there’s another reason to focus on the elementary school: Mr. Murray thinks that the school, unlike the high school, may just barely qualify for having 50 percent of its students needing free and reduced lunch prices—one of the target goals of the federal grant. It’s possible, though, that the school will come in at a heartbreaking 49 percent.

“I hope, as further funds become available, there will be money for those who fall in between,” he said. “There are a lot of schools that are just barely making it that would love to upgrade their food facilities. If you are going to change your philosophy on food delivery, it is a bit tough to do if your kitchen is still stuck back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Farm to School program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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