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Schools Use Creative Approaches to Serve Local Foods (And to Get Kids to Eat Them)

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Serving locally grown food is a big trend in school cafeterias, but it can seem out-of-reach for some food-service programs, particularly those in small, rural schools.

To ease the path for those schools, and to encourage innovations that others can adopt, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm to School program awards planning and implementation grants to allow educators to explore school garden projects, lesson plans about nutrition and agriculture, and new food distribution models. The agency's Farm to School Census, released earlier this year, found that districts that participated in the program in 2011-12 served over $385 million in local food that year, and a majority of those schools planned to increase their purchases of local food in the future.

usdaschoollunch.jpgThe USDA announced $5 million new grants for 82 additional projects this week. I pawed through the grant descriptions, and descriptions from past years, to find some trends.

Introducing students to chefs and farmers

Students are more likely to eat new and foreign foods if they understand where they came from or how they were cooked, grantees said. So some districts have "adopt a farmer" programs, where local farmers who provide produce for the cafeteria come to the classroom periodically to describe their work. Some schools even take students on field trips to farms and orchards so they can see food growing before it finds its way to their lunch tray.

Focusing on one day

Some statewide organizations have encouraged schools to promote local foods one day of the week. California has "California Thursdays," for example. Several large districts in the Golden State have already signed on to those efforts. The "bite-sized" program allows districts to take their first nibble at farm to school work or to extend existing efforts using cooperative menu development, staff training, and education efforts, organizers said. And it's an easy way to get kids interested in local foods.

Exploring new growing methods

School gardens have grown much more sophisticated than a small rectangular plot with rows of leaf lettuce. Districts are exploring edible landscaping, growing in greenhouses, and coverting unused land to fields. And the Columbia, Mo., district plans to work with the University of Missouri Agricultural Extension to boost its program through indoor growing and hydroponics in the winter, its grant description says.

Buying new equipment

As I've reported previously, a vast majority of people responsible for making school meals say their kitchens are in need of new equipment. And many kitchens are quite spare, better suited for opening cans and reheating frozen foods than for chopping fresh vegetables or making spaghetti sauce from scratch with local tomatoes. So some grant recipients are using the new money for things as simple as industrial-sized hand blenders and freezers to store local vegetables for the winter.

Thinking regionally

Some small schools don't have the purchasing power to buy directly from farmers because their needs are too small. So districts partner in regional "food hubs," which essentially buy in bulk and store local foods in a central area for use by multiple school systems. Some regional models also involve centralized kitchens for processing fresh foods or even cooking entire meals. Sometimes these regional agreements are coordinated by third-party organizations. For example, Working Landscapes, an organization in Warrenton, N.C., plans to use its grant to process food from small and minority owned farms and to design accompanying classroom materials.

Beyond fruit and vegetables

While farm-to-school programs call to mind images of fresh apples and leafy greens, schools are also buying local milk, eggs, and meat for students through such efforts. The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council in South Dakota, for example, plans to offer local bison meat, and some Alaska schools offer locally caught fish.

Photo: Arlington Public Schools food service workers discuss the day's lunch service for Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va.USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

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