January 15th, 2017

This year, when you visit your favorite farmer’s market, you might notice new competition for that organic baby spinach you’ve been craving: your local school district. Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it is improving efforts to get farm-fresh food into school cafeterias, normally stanchions of processed and canned cuisine.

As part of the agency’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign, the USDA issued a new rule that would allow school lunch purchasers to give preference to locally grown or raised produce, dairy, and meat products used for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. Efforts to encourage farm-to-school programs, which are so popular they now operate in 46 states, were a big part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that was signed into law last December. Replacing canned, processed, and frozen foods with fresh local food is recognized as the best way to combat the childhood-obesity epidemic, which seems particularly problematic among children who eat school lunches. According to a recent study, children who eat school lunches every day are more likely to be obese than kids who bring lunches from home. The ruling also benefits rural America by allowing farmers to attract a larger number of customers beyond weekly farmer’s markets or community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

As part of its announcement, the USDA also said that agency officials were in the process of selecting certain school districts to work with on farm-to-school initiatives, not just those related to fresh produce but also farm visits, gardening, cooking, and composting activities. If you’d liked to see some of those things implemented in your child’s school, here are a few tips:

  • Eat your kid’s lunch. In order to fix a problem, you need to know what you’re up against, and most parents will inherently know something’s wrong if they share a meal with their child in the school cafeteria, says the Renegade Lunch Lady,” Chef Ann Cooper.
  • Then, go to the board. Once you know what improvements can be made, call or pay a visit to your local school board to see what their nutritional policies are. Although all schools must meet specific nutritional requirements with each meal, each school district has different ways of meeting those requirements. Once you know what the policies are, you can form a task force or find some other way to get healthier food into your school lunches.
  • Enlist the help of a local celebri-chef. Last year, first lady Michelle Obama issued a call to chefs nationwide, asking them to get more involved with their local schools. In fact, that call was part of another USDA initiative, Chefs Move to Schools—not just because chefs make delicious foods, but also because they know how to be extremely creative on a very limited budget. And as evidenced by Jamie Oliver’s TV series Food Revolution, good chefs can make a huge difference. Find local restaurateurs in your town and see if one of their chefs would be willing to spend an afternoon, a day, or even more of her time to get kids to eat more healthfully.
  • Start a school garden. If changing the food system seems too daunting, that’s OK. A school garden can be just as successful in improving childhood nutrition as what the kids eat in the school cafeteria, studies have shown. It can be difficult to get one up and running, simply because gardens are most productive during summer, when kids and school staff are on vacation. But it’s not impossible; the growing season for leafy greens and other fall vegetables extends into November—plenty of time for kids to get their hands dirty. For tips, see Without Gardens, Schools Lack Some Important Lessons. If all efforts at a school garden fail, keep your children engaged at home by starting a kid-friendly backyard veggie patch.
  • Go school-to-farm. While adults want to educate kids about where their food comes from, children might find it more entertaining to find out where all their food waste goes. Encourage your child’s science teacher to start a school compost pile and find a local farm that needs it to feed its crops.

By Emily Mann, Rodale News