More and more schools, universities and other institutions with cafeterias are by-passing processed foods from multi-national corporations. Instead, they’re buying food from local farmers. Advocates say locally-grown fruits and vegetables are fresher. They say the food tastes better, and they’re finding kids sometimes ask for apples and tomatoes instead of candy and chips. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports:
More and more schools, universities, and other institutions with cafeterias are bypassing the processed foods from multi-national corporations. Instead, they’re buying food from local farmers. Advocates say locally-grown fruits and vegetables are fresher. They say the food tastes better. And they’re finding kids sometimes ask for apples and tomatoes instead of candy and chips. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports:
(Sound of cafeteria)
In this cafeteria, there are displays on the wall asking, “What is local food?” and answering, “Foods grown and raised where you are.” Well, that makes sense, but there’s more.
“Then when you get into the lines…”
Sociology professor Howard Sacks is director of Kenyon College.
“We have these menus that talk about all the things that are being served here and it tells exactly where they come from. So the pasta alfredo with tomato and basil features noodles produced by Mrs. Miller’s noodles in Fredericksburg, Ohio, and the cream is by the Broughton Dairy in Marietta, Ohio. As you can see this is about thirty lines long and it shows about thirty different local producers.”
As recently as the late 1990’s, only a handful of colleges and universities had programs to buy locally-produced foods for their cafeterias. Today, more than two hundred are looking for local farmers for their produce, dairy, and meat products. Most of those schools, such as Kenyon, Yale University, and the University of Wisconsin among the nation’s most expensive and elite.
But even some struggling public school districts are making it a priority to buy local foods. Ray Denniston is Food Services director of the Johnson City School District in the Catskills region of New York. He says a few years ago they served produce that had been shipped from California or Mexico, or they just opened cans.
“So your fruits and vegetables, kids weren’t taking them; it wasn’t a quality item. I’m not going to say we didn’t worry about it, but it got less attention then the other items on the trays. And now that’s changed. So, instead of getting a canned green bean, which I might as well put sawdust out there as far as nutrients, instead of that, now we would have fresh broccoli.”
Denniston used to sit in his office and look at price quotes from food distributors. Now he visits farms and negotiates the best prices for local products he can find in season. He says the change started with a few tomatoes.
“When I first met with Frank, the farmer, he stopped down and dropped off just some tomatoes. And the staff had some, we had some in the cooler and we brought some out and we cut them and there was a taste thing, and they said, ‘Don’t ever get any others but his.’ I mean, they were just so much sweeter, juicier, wonderful tomatoes and then it just kept going.”
Then came the rich green colored broccoli. It was a big change from what they offered their kids before.
Other schools say students love the taste of milk from local farms that don’t give their cows antibiotics. Johnson says cafeteria workers are excited by the fresher vegetables and meats. They like talking with the students about the food, and they like cooking again. Many schools don’t even have kitchens anymore; they only have heating trays for pre-packaged foods.
Deb Bruns is with the California Department of Education. She says those heated meals often don’t taste very good and she says they send the wrong message to kids.
“…that lunch is a time to grab something processed and hurry through it and get out to recess, and it doesn’t matter what we tell them in the classroom about nutrition if we’re not modeling that in their dining experience then we’re just missing such an opportunity to really teach them where their food comes from.”
Many schools start these programs because of nutrition and obesity concerns. By serving fresh, local food, the nutrition lessons continue when the kids line up in the cafeteria. Some schools say prices from local farms are actually lower then national distributors, but they often end up spending more money on fruits and vegetables. That’s because – believe it or not – kids are eating more broccoli, apples, and tomatoes.
For the GLRC, I’m Julie Grant.