Wednesday, October 26, 2011

(Factory) Farm to School

It's National Farm to School Month and last Friday I attended a fantastic Farm to School workshop through MSU's Extension Program. The workshop consisted of two very thorough presentations, a basic intro and then a more advanced nuts and bolts of getting farm to school programs off the ground in Michigan. Many school food service directors were in attendance but also a school nutrition consultant for the state's Department of Education, members of FoodCorps, reps from Detroit's Eastern Market, concerned parents and local food marketing strategists. The group had lively discussions and the four hours seemed to fly by with substantial ground covered.

Many schools have already initiated farm to school programs. The school district where I am currently working has a relationship with some local farms and occasionally gets produce from them. Introducing fresh produce in the school cafeteria on a regular basis is great. But at the end of the day most of the food served is not fruit and vegetables from local farms but from beef and poultry from factory farms.

I asked about this at the end of Friday's presentations. While I recognize the value of (and need for) increasing fruit and vegetable consumption among students, after observing cafeteria eating habits these past four weeks, I have seen that most students opt for meat and cheese-laden foods - these being important components of the reimbursable meals - and wondered if there were any efforts focusing on local farms for sourcing meat and dairy.

The answer was yes and no. Yes, there are certain dairy farms that are responding to the needs of school food service directors. For example, schools are required to serve fat free milk in a certain serving size and specific type of bottle that was hard to find on the market and a local Michigan dairy responded by making that product available. So clearly school food service directors can impact the supply chain. But no, there is no effort looking at the quality of that dairy or the types of practices used on those dairy farms or on any other farms for that matter. Why is this significant? Because in 2009-10, 31.6 million U.S. children participated in daily school lunch programs. That's a lot of buying power. I couldn't help but wonder how that could be harnessed to improve the food system even further than getting a local vegetable to feature on a school menu once a month. Besides, fresh produce presents a tremendous challenge for many school food service facilities that lack the labor, the facility, the time or the know-how to prepare fruits and vegetables properly or in a desirable way. Just this morning I was assisting in a school kitchen, laying frozen burgers that barely resembled beef out on trays, and filling bags with pepperoni, which had few traces of actual meat content.  I was then asked to cut up several dozen zucchini and squash which I was later horrified to watch being steamed to mush and served in such an undesirable fashion that even I did not care to try them. They didn't stand a chance on pizza day. (Need I mention that the pepperoni pizza sold out first?)

This evening I came across a post on Mark Bittman's website that shared a letter from a chef to his colleagues in the restaurant world offering the reasons they should strongly consider sourcing their meat from reputable, ethical, healthier farms. Beyond the health concerns of hormone and antibiotic use, of animal cruelty and corporate monopolization that the letter cites, the EPA lists "enteric fermentation" (ie. gas emitted from animals related to digestion) as the second highest contributors to U.S. methane gas emissions (climate change, anyone?). Number five on the list, "manure management" is an even greater problem because it also poses a food safety threat, as evidenced by the unusual (although increasingly usual) recent spate of produce cross-contaminated with e. coli.

Farm to school programs continue to grow, thanks in part to increased funding and grant opportunities (stipulated under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) and to the birth of FoodCorps and that is exciting to behold.   Given the size and buying power of schools I hope that in the future, the programs expand to include considerations toward where they source their beef and dairy and move away from factory farms. While the supply does not currently exist for most schools to purchase all their animal products from non-factory farms, such efforts might, at the very least, put more pressure on the industry to create a healthier, more sustainable model. And it would certainly put a better product on the lunch line.

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