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Local farmers may shake up school lunches

By AILEEN CHARLESTON, The Mirror

In 2002, the Olympia School District introduced a pilot program at an elementary school that provided students with an organic salad bar containing locally grown fruits and vegetables during lunchtime.

The program rapidly earned the acceptance of parents and students. By the 2003 academic year, all 18 schools in the Olympia School District were getting organic and locally grown produce for their meals.

Last month, the HR 2798 bill legally referred to as the “Enacting the local farms-healthy kids and communities act” — and commonly known as the “Farm to School bill” — began working its way through the Washington state Legislature.

Buying from local farmers is a process that sounds easier than it is. Schools need to abide by strict state rules and regulations that force them to buy food from the lowest bidder, regardless of where the food items are grown.

Tom Geiger, communications director of the Washington Environmental Council, said that with the passing of the Farm to School bill, schools will no longer have to buy from the lowest bid in the market. Schools would be able to buy directly from farmers, or continue with their current system.

Like many districts around the state, the Federal Way School District’s yearly budget for food is very limited, said Mary Aspalund, nutrition services director for the district. The allotted amount has not changed in more than 20 years, she said.

“Most local farmers have represented that their prices are more expensive,” Asplund said.

For years, the Federal Way School District has purchased food from both national and local distributors that abide by strict sanitary regulations, which commonly follow the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement checklist. This verifies the biosecurity and source of the products before purchase.

“If I buy from a local farmer, I want to know that they could answer the questions based on this agreement,” Aspalund said.

With the Farm to School bill, the intent is not to change the way schools do business, but to encourage the possibility of improving student health, supporting the local economy and unifying the community.

Paul Flock, nutrition director of the Olympia School District, said that both parents and children appreciate the program.

“Everybody I talk to really likes the program, and everybody wants to see it succeed,” Flock said. “It’s all been absolutely positive, not only inside the school but in the community.”

Olympia has about 9,000 students in its school district, compared to more than 22,000 that currently attend Federal Way schools. Flock said that buying locally grown produce has cost the schools more, but added that this process is part of the Olympia district’s culture now. In order to alleviate the expense, the district eliminated all unhealthy desserts — brownies, cookies, pastries — from lunch menus.

Healthy options:

The Farm to School bill stresses in children the importance of fruits and vegetables in their diet, and also promotes a relationship between students and local farmers.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, more than 60 percent of people in the state are overweight or obese. The Farm to School bill wants to create a culture of a healthier lifestyles among children from a very young age.

The bill would also help low budget districts throughout the state with funding in order to make locally grown products more accessible to children. The bill would facilitate the use of food stamps and electronic benefit transfer cards in local farmers markets.

One of the program’s barriers is that the majority of schools get a very small reimbursement from the federal government for each meal they serve, said Ruth Abad, community specialist for the Department of Health.

“It would be great to have fresh food available from local growers, but not necessarily at the expense of neglecting other important issues and concerns that parents and schools face today — funding support, supplies,” said Claire Wilson, a parent whose children attend Valhalla Elementary School in Federal Way.

Limitations:

The Federal Way School District kitchen, as most school district kitchens, is currently not equipped with the facilities or sufficient staff necessary to deal with food that has not already been processed.

Nutrition services director Mary Asplund said processed products the district buys are fresher than what is commonly available at the grocery store.

“Our distributors buy locally when it’s season and follow a produce market research before buying,” Asplund said.

Food Services of America is in charge of distributing food to schools districts around the country and state, including the Federal Way School District.

“Our opinion as a company is that buying local is always best for the economy and sometimes even for the pricing of the product. However, the larger the organization, the more control it has over the quality and safety of the product,” said Greg Hall, president of Food Services of America.

Even though schools around the state put a lot of effort in providing adequate nutrition for students, spending more money in subjects like education is typically their number one priority.

The bill has been referred to the appropriations committee and a hearing for consideration is expected by Feb. 11. However, its future remains uncertain.

District 30 State Rep. Skip Priest, a co-sponsor of the bill in the House, said that many times legislation is the first step to drive into discussion these types of incentives.

“Homegrown food would be very significant for our children, but the terms of cost and quality are always an issue,” Priest said.

Contact Aileen Charleston: acharleston@fedwaymirror.com

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Learn more

For more information, visit www.farmtoschool.org or http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=2798&year=2007

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