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School food’s nearly home grown

Nanette Bray loads trays of turkey and chicken corndogs, made from whole wheat batter, for delivery to Bainbridge elementary schools.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Nanette Bray loads trays of turkey and chicken corndogs, made from whole wheat batter, for delivery to Bainbridge elementary schools.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The fields of the Day Road farms and Wilkes Elementary School are separated by a short stretch of rural road.

But when it comes to getting greens grown at the farms into the school lunchroom, they may as well be in different states.

Produce from small farms on Bainbridge, and elsewhere in Washington, has been largely blocked from school districts by a jungle of red tape and some simple economics.

A bill passed in the state Legislature’s recently adjourned session and expected to be signed by the governor, is designed to clear a path for farmers and school districts to get local produce into the lunchroom. The bill allows districts to favor Washington-grown products when awarding contracts. It also establishes a “farm to school program” and a grant program for purchasing Washington produce with $1.4 million allocated for kick starting pilot projects.

The bill was heartily supported by Bainbridge’s Sen. Phil Rockefeller and Rep. Christine Rolfes, and fellow legislators who saw it as a way of bringing fresh produce to schools while promoting agriculture. Meanwhile a group of island parents hopes the measure will rejuvenate interest in adding nutritious, naturally grown foods to the district’s menus.

“It’s a great bill,” Rolfes said. “I hope the Bainbridge district can take advantage of it.”

It remains to be seen whether cash-strapped food services programs like Bainbridge’s can pencil out a way to incorporate more costly local produce, even if some state funds are available.

“It is a great, wonderful idea,” said Todd Miller, Bainbridge district’s food and nutrition manager. “But it has to work financially.”

It’s an idea the district has a duty to pursue, said Dr. David Cowan, a physician at Virginia Mason’s Winslow Clinic and the father of two Bainbridge students.

Cowan is co-founder of Healthier Kids Bainbridge, a community group that has advocated healthier options in the district’s lunch program. At first he was compelled to advocate more nutritious foods as a way of preventing health problems increasingly prevalent diseases like diabetes and obesity.

But more recently he has come to embrace the idea that local foods can help achieve those ends and more. Cowan said there is a growing body of science that shows that foods shed nutrients over long trips, while fossil fuels are burned shipping the foods from one state to another. Meanwhile, nutritionists are more and more abandoning vitamins pills and food pyramids in favor of fresh, lightly processed produce.

Local farms aren’t just a source for fresh produce, they also offer a way to connect kids to what they eat, Cowan said. A curriculum to support new menu items could include farm tours and nutrition classes that would teach students about how there food is grown and what a balanced diet is. Cowan believes knowing how their lettuce makes its way from a farm to their plate will make students more eager to try healthy options.

“I think there is a disconnect between the curriculum we teach and the lunchroom,” he said. “I think the school district, and not just this school district but many in the state, are missing an opportunity to make the lunchroom part of the curriculum.”

Meanwhile, Cowan said, local farms would benefit from new demand, which could in turn help preserve open space and aquifers. He hopes the district can take advantage of the new legislation, even if it only adds an incremental amount of island produce.

“Up until now we haven’t been able to have any local food in the schools, not a single onion,” he said. “The fact that we can now take some steps is really exciting.”

Olympia School District has provided the most successful farm to school model for Washington districts. It has cut costs on things like utensils and desserts, and promotes less wasteful eating habits to compensate for the higher cost of local organics while receiving some need-based federal funding.

But few districts have pursued partnerships with Washington farms because of tight state restrictions on how schools procure foods, said George Sneller, director of child nutrition for the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Those restrictions favor large, cost efficient wholesalers and with most districts already losing money on their lunch programs it is hard to seek out creative options.

The Bainbridge district orders most of its meats and produce

from distribution giant Food Services of America, which operates 70 warehouses from Iowa to Alaska. Breads are shipped from Franz bakeries, which supplies most restaurants in the Northwest. Milk comes from Seattle-based Smith Brother’s Farms, which provides hormone and antibiotic free dairy products from Washington cows. Wherever it can, the district also takes advantage of federally subsidized commodities such as beef.

Many foods arrive preprocessed at the central kitchen and distribution hub in Sakai Intermediate School and are simply heated and served. Some entrees, like salads, sandwiches, and pastas are cooked from scratch in the kitchen.

The district feeds lunches to about 1,400 students daily and roughly 45 percent of Miller’s $935,000 annual budget is dedicated to buying food. Unlike many districts, Bainbridge’s food services are self sustaining, covering all its costs from the price of lunches.

Rising costs for fuel, dairy products and staff wages have further strained the budget.

“We’ve been able to make it work,” Miller said. “This year we’ll be cutting it pretty close.”

Response to a 2005 survey of parents, staff and students, conducted as part of a broader study of the district’s food services, seemed to show a willingness to pay more for quality food.

Of the respondents, 68 percent said they would be more likely to buy school lunches if the food was healthier, while only 12.6 percent said lowering the cost of lunches would increase demand. The overwhelming majority of the 93 pages of typed comments dealt with a desire for quality food and many parents recommended the inclusion of organically grown foods.

It was predictable that parents, given a choice, would want healthier food for their children, Miller said, but he was surprised at the volume of response. Over 1,200 had completed the survey, a monstrous number by district standards.

The school’s nutrition department took heed and added a new lineup of organic items offered by FSA, the main food provider for the district. Organic spring salad greens were proffered to students, along with other naturally grown vegetables.

The new items were a flop, Miller said. Students were purchasing a fraction of the number of the organic salad meals rather than popular standbys such as pizza. Given the price of the organic produce, often three times more expensive than comparable non-organics, he said he could not justify continuing to offer the menu additions.

“Across the board, none of these salads or healthier choices were selling at all,” Miller said. “I can only guess that it was kids who were deciding what they wanted for lunch, and not the parents.”

The district still offers a few organic products and Miller said parents tend to overlook some of the healthy items already being used. Only whole wheat breads and buns are included in lunches. Hot dogs and corn dogs are made from chicken and turkey. Each school is equipped with a salad bar stocked with a changing array of both fresh and canned vegetables and fruits.

Miller said he would welcome proposals for adding local and organic selections. He agreed that curriculum to introduce students to the food options may have been a missing ingredient in the district’s previous menu changes. But he said there are many unknowns, such as whether the scattered local farms could produce enough to meet even seasonal demands for a few products and what state funding would be made available. He said he has also yet to see conclusive evidence that organics or local foods are more nutritious, and for now focus on meeting federal and state guidelines.

“At this point its better to promote kids eating fruits and vegetables,” he said. “Whether its organic or not, it’s most important that kids are eating healthy.”

Some of Miller’s questions will be answered as the grant programs are developed this year.

The grants for purchasing Washington produce will likely not be a helpful funding source for Bainbridge schools. Legislature budgeted $600,000 for the 2008-2009 school year to be administered through the state Superintendent of Public Instruction office. But Sneller said the grants will favor schools with 50 percent or more of students whose family’s income qualifies them for state and federal free or reduced lunch programs. About 5 percent of Bainbridge students receive discounts.

It is unclear yet how grant money for farm to school programs will be allocated.

Cowan believes that raising good food as a priority, more than anything, will bring local farms and local schools together.

“Helping kids take care of their bodies and be healthy is one of the most important things a school district can do,” he said. “Nothing else a student learns will be useful unless they have their health.”

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