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A Food Fight for Schools’ Cafeterias

December 15, 2009

For many of us, no recollection of elementary school is complete without vivid memories of the terrifying food served in the cafeteria. The Apple Valley-Rosemount-Eagan school district is trying to change this negative connotation with the introduction of its Farm to School program earlier this year. Besides replacing the tried-and-truly-disgusting entrees of yore with dishes whose ingredients are recognizable parts of nature, District 196 intends to change the school lunch program at its most basic level—the source of the food. Rather than exclusively patronizing corporate food purveyors, who utilize both the factory farm model to grow the food and the factory kitchen model to prepare it, schools in the district are buying a portion of their food from local farmers.

The Minnesota Farm to School initiative is part of a nationwide network of schools collaborating to bring local foods to cafeterias in nearly every state in the country. Besides the direct health benefits of using fresh produce rather than the canned and frozen stuff typically found in school lunches, the program has a serious environmental agenda as well. The schools in the network are working toward a food delivery system that is less carbon-intensive and, to this end, are partnering with local farmer to cut back on transportation-related emissions and support responsible farming operations. Furthermore, by buying from local producers, more of the schools’ money is retained in their respective communities.

There is a growing interest in reforming school lunch programs in Minnesota. Seth Bixby Daugherty, formerly the executive chef at Cosmos, left the fine dining scene three years ago to form his own organization, Real Food Initiatives. Daugherty is building relationships with schools around the metro with the hope of bringing more local ingredients into rotation in cafeterias. Willmar, which is one of the communities highlight in The Minnesota Project’s Lessons & Concepts for Advancing Community Wind, has been a part of the Farm to School project since 2005. And the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy recently partnered with the St. Paul Public School District in an attempt to “increase the use of local produce, whole grains and healthier meat and dairy products in St. Paul schools.

While the push for these types of programs seems to have gained momentum recently, school lunch reform is far from a new idea. The quality of public school food became the subject of national debate long before Ronald Reagan and his now-infamous Ketchupgate scandal. Upon signing the 1946 National School Lunch Act—which was met with opposition from many small-government conservatives of the era, among them Senator Robert Taft of Ohio—President Harry Truman noted, “In the long view, no country is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers.” But over the last half-century, as the face of American farming increasingly became that of Tyson and Cargill, the interests of children and famers diverged, and the drafters of the various iterations of the Child Nutrition and WIC Act followed the money. Yet it would seem that this trend is on the backswing. Someday soon, the undistinguishable casseroles and cardboard-textured fish sticks of our own school days will be things of the past, replaced by made-from-scratch dishes spared the indignity of the deep fryer and grown by local farmers.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Donald permalink
    December 20, 2009 7:07 pm

    Very well done.

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