Schools Across the Region Thinking Outside the Lunchbox
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Lunch menus at several local schools are getting a makeover: Less mystery meat, canned fruit and sad-looking green beans. More fresh fruit, veggies, eggs, cheese and meat from farms just down the road.
Slowly, the buy-local phenomenon, which has made farmers markets and harvest subscriptions all the rage, is hitting school lunch programs. Maryland dubbed last week Homegrown School Lunch Week and encouraged cafeteria staffs to use local produce. Virginia plans to organize a similar statewide event in November.
"We want to make sure children get fresh produce in their diets," said Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Right now, most students "get a lot of stuff that's processed. Every time it's processed or transported, it loses some of its nutritional value."
In Northeast Washington, the Washington Jesuit Academy gets 75 percent of its food from local farmers and producers, most of which are in the Shenandoah Valley. The tuition-free Catholic middle school for at-risk boys runs from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., so the students eat three meals a day at school.
Unlike traditional hot lunches, local produce "just looks good, and when you eat it, you feel good, too," said Michael F. Curtin Jr., chief executive of D.C. Central Kitchen, which started the Campus Kitchens Project, which provides the school's meals. "The teachers can see a clear difference in the attention span in the students, and it's all because of the food."
The farm-to-school initiative started at a handful of schools in California, Florida and North Carolina in the late 1990s and has grown steadily. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 2,000 farm-to-school programs are active in about 40 states.
Such programs give schools access to fresh, nutritious food that is often less expensive because transportation costs are lower. And the programs give small-farm owners a chance to break into a new market.
In addition to nutrition, farm-to-school programs provide learning opportunities for students. During Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week, dozens of farmers visited schools to explain their occupation and the complicated process of growing the food students eat for lunch. Nearly all of the state's 24 public school systems, along with many private schools, participated.
School lunches in Anne Arundel County featured a different locally grown item each day. At three elementary schools in St. Mary's County, farmers set up outdoor displays featuring live animals and farm equipment. Students at Dowell Elementary School in Lusby were encouraged to pack a "waste-free lunch" in a reusable lunchbox with a cloth napkin. At Plum Point Elementary in Huntingtown, students got to pet calves, kids and lambs.
At the Tidewater School, a private elementary school in Huntingtown, kindergartners learned the parts of a plant, washed and chopped locally grown vegetables for soup and learned about composting. Most of the students knew a lot about farms, but many didn't understand how food is transported across the country.
"We talked about strawberries and how they are not in season right now in Maryland. The children are saying, 'But I can buy them at the grocery store!' " said kindergarten teacher Suzanne McAlexander. "Hopefully, we are expanding their palates."