September 1, 2010

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Making the Grade

Farm-to-School Movement Remakes School Lunch

Gaylen Webb

September 1, 2010

A Tough Row to Hoe
The farm-to-school movement is not without its hurdles. “We are faced with some obstacles that we are learning to work through,” says Cruz, noting that there really isn’t a map to follow in the state for bringing locally grown products into the school setting.

“I have been to a few farm-to-school conferences this past year, and the state is working to make information accessible to us for best practice decision-making, relative to this program, but as yet we have no map to follow,” she says.

Goodwin says other hurdles to overcome involve issues related to federal requirements, food safety, labeling, supply and delivery, competitive pricing and the growing season.

“Local growers are not going to be able to produce food at the same unit cost as factory farms with thousands of acres, but the case needs to be made for sustainable farming, using less chemical fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides,” he says.

Is it more expensive to buy local? “In some cases,” says Glauser, “but not always.” He explains that Lunchboxers was able to negotiate prices within its budget for the fruit and produce that will be included in its school lunches; however, smaller farm operations may have to charge more for their crops.

Cruz says she generally does not have a price commitment until shortly before the product comes into the school district’s warehouse. Nonetheless, she is confident that cost is something the district can work through “as we move into the future.” She expects that costs will vary, “based on our quantity commitments and the ability of local growers to meet those commitments.”

On the supply side, Messer says it may be difficult for small farm operations like hers to participate in a farm-to-school program without teaming up with other producers. “We wouldn’t be able to fulfill the demand alone, but that should be one of the goals of the farm-to-school program—getting producers to partner in order to fulfill the need,” she says.

One way to solve the supply/demand challenge is to “aggregate the producers and/or their products. They have to gather themselves together and figure out how to do that, perhaps by forming cooperatives or through food brokers,” says Goodwin.

Food safety is another issue that must be addressed by any farm-to-school program. “We have every confidence in the local producers, but until farms are GAAMP certified (Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices), we will be working through a local produce distributor who is, in-turn, working closely with local providers in verifying that safety standards are in place,” Cruz explains. “We look forward to working directly with local providers, but things have not quite evolved to that point.”

To address food safety and supply concerns, especially since the growing season doesn’t coincide with the school season, Glauser says Lunchboxers also works with Sysco as the purveyor, “but we will use as much local produce as possible until the growing season ends.”

Despite its challenges, the farm-to-school movement is here to stay. “This is where school lunch programs are headed in our country—locally grown and made from scratch; that’s what the lunchbox revolution is all about,” says Glauser.

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