By Rachael Gleason
Oct. 29, 2009
At McAuliffe Elementary School in Chicago, kids are more likely to see local fruits and veggies on their lunch trays than mystery meat and greasy pizza.
They also visit local farms and learn about how the food is grown.
“It gives them a sense of appreciation,” said Gary Cuneen, founding director of an organization that partners schools with local farms. “We are trying to teach kids that taking care of the earth and taking care of their bodies are interrelated goals.”
Cunneen’s Chicago-based Seven Generations Ahead is among the growing number of Great Lakes programs that provide schools with local produce and nutrition education and farmers with new markets.
There were just a handful of such programs in the early 1990s. Now there are more than 2,000 around the
country, according to a national farm-to-school network.
“A year ago, this work felt like you were pushing the boulder up the mountain,” said Sara Tedeschi, Great Lakes program coordinator for the Farm-to-School Network. “Now it feels like we’re chasing it down the other side.”
The farm-to-school movement is picking up steam in time for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act expected this spring. Program organizers say it is a prime opportunity to provide support for their efforts.
The act’s 2004 reauthorization created the farm-to-school program and allocated $10 million in funding. But Congress never appropriated the money, said Debra Eschmeyer media and marketing director for the Farm-to-School Network and Center for Food & Justice at Occidental College.
One Tray, a national campaign for farm-to-school programs, is pushing for a $50 million grant program this time around. New projects could receive up to $100,000 for start-up costs.
“We have evidence that programs are sustainable and cost effective. They just need help getting off the ground,” Eschmeyer said.
Great Lakes programs
There are between 30 and 50 Great Lakes programs involved in the national Farm-to-School network, Tedeschi said. That doesn’t include unaffiliated programs.
Not all have the same goals. Some simply unite schools with local farms. Others also teach students about agriculture and nutrition.
“How a farm-to-school program plays out in an individual community has a tremendous amount of variability and flexibility,” Tedeschi said.
Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, a grassroots farm-to-school lunch system, has fostered nutrition education for approximately eight years. A food education and policy group operates it in seven school districts. Activities include farm field trips, school gardening and serving meals of locally produced food.
The Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and AmeriCorps are also involved in the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch movement.
In Illinois, Seven Generations Ahead focuses on changing children’s relationships with food in more than a dozen schools.
“When you’re teaching them about how fruits and vegetables grow and giving them the experience of that on the farm or school garden, it really does transform their relationships to that fruit or vegetable,” Cuneen said. “They literally get excited about the testing.”
The work isn’t easy, Cuneen said. Farm-to-school programs need funding, a healthy supply of local food and adequate facilities. Supply is the biggest challenge in the Chicago area.
“Farmers are resistant to get into the school sale market for fear of pricing or fear that the contracts won’t be upheld,” Cuneen said. “Some of them prefer the direct consumer market.”
Small farms see school markets as a way to expand revenues, but farm-to-school programs need mid-sized farms to offer larger quantities of food to work, he said.
Preparing the food is also a problem, Cuneen said. “You have to be about to process locally grown foods – cutting up carrots and slicing apples – so that a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables can be used in school lunch menus.”
Another challenge to farm-to-school programs involves getting over perceived barriers like cost, Eschmeyer said.
“People think the fruit is more expensive, but that’s not true,” she said. “In California, they were able to get peaches at 8 cents a piece versus fruit cocktails, which are laden with sugar, at 14 cents.”
Seven Generations Ahead collaborates with urban farms and rooftops gardens and with rural farms outside of Chicago.
“Different regions have different landscapes and different agricultural realities,” Tedeschi said. “Some regions are better suited or progressive.”
Efforts linking schools to local agriculture are also alive in Michigan.
Elaine Brown of Michigan Food and Farming Systems, an organization that connects schools with local growers, sees getting local fruits and vegetables into school cafeterias as a necessity for both parties.
“There’s a huge need when you look at school lunches – there are not a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.
New customers for farms
Farmers also benefit from new markets.
“It’s about helping our farmers become more viable in this growing sector,” Brown said.
More than 80 percent of food service directors who responded to a Michigan farm-to-school survey in 2006 were interested in purchasing food directly from local producers.That’s 10 percent more than in 2004, according to the network.
Approximately 40 percent of school nutrition programs around the country say they offer locally grown food in their cafeterias, according to the School Nutrition Association. Another 21 percent of districts are interested. And more than 20 states have adopted farm-to-school legislation.
“Farm-to-school is happening in large and small ways all over the country,” Tedeschi said.
“There’s a lot of amazing work going on.”