A+ Eating

The farm-to-school movement declares war on the tater tot.
By Anita Neal Harrison
Photos by Nicholas Benner
Typography by Blake Dinsdale

Girl smiling and holding a piece of watermelon Illustration: Watermelon with “A+ Eating” cut out of it Masthead: The farm-to-school movement declares war on the tater tot. By Anita Neal Harrison. Photos by Nicholas Benner. Typography by Blake Dinsdale.

In classrooms across missouri, food service workers gathered last summer to watch local chefs prepare dishes with some extraordinary ingredients: fresh tomatoes, romaine lettuce and, what most participants found truly astounding, butternut squash.

While this is hardly the stuff of Chicago’s Alinea or the late-lamented elBulli in Catalonia, for school cooks, such preparations represent a shift in the status quo every bit as revolutionary as Grant Achatz’s “black-truffle explosion.”

“We are talking about a systemic change in the school environment,” says Anupama Joshi, director of the National Farm to School Network, an advocacy organization launched in 2007. “We are talking about an overhaul in how school food is purchased and prepared. That’s a big change.”

In classrooms across missouri, food service workers gathered last summer to watch local chefs prepare dishes with some extraordinary ingredients: fresh tomatoes, romaine lettuce and, what most participants found truly astounding, butternut squash.

While this is hardly the stuff of Chicago’s Alinea or the late-lamented elBulli in Catalonia, for school cooks, such preparations represent a shift in the status quo every bit as revolutionary as Grant Achatz’s “black-truffle explosion.”

“We are talking about a systemic change in the school environment,” says Anupama Joshi, director of the National Farm to School Network, an advocacy organization launched in 2007. “We are talking about an overhaul in how school food is purchased and prepared. That’s a big change.”

Farm-to-school programs aim to get more local items — in particular, fresh fruits and vegetables — into school cafeterias. They have exploded in number in the U.S. over the last 15 years, growing from just 2 in 1996 to more than 2,000 in 2010.

Good Eating Gains Ground

A growing interest in farm-to-school programs goes right along with public enthusiasm for "eating local" in general. Between 1997 and 2007, direct-to-consumer sales of food products rose from $551 million to $1.2 billion, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. The number of farmers' markets, meanwhile, climbed to 5,274 in 2009, up from 1,755 in 1994 and 2,756 in 1998, according to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

At MU, there are several angles of interest when it comes to local food — sustainability, effects on the environment, economic development, health impacts, social justice, food safety, rural resiliency and food security. Research and projects related to local food find homes in a wide range of University disciplines, from the Missouri Value Added Development Center in MU's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources' Department of Agricultural Economics to the School of Social Work in the College of Human Environmental Sciences.

MU Extension is particularly active in the local food realm. Its Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program, operational since the mid-1990s, aims to foster "a desirable quality of life for people through agricultural systems that are ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible." Its Food Circles Networking Project is concerned with developing a community-based, sustainable food system through reshaping the relationships that surround food.

While national in scope, farm-to-school programs are not a one-size-fits-all program. Some schools elect to keep it as simple as offering one or two local food items, such as apples and watermelons, that are in season. Others have as much as 40 percent of their produce coming from local farmers during fall harvest. Still others have their own gardens, purchase directly from farmers, or use local brokers and grower co-ops.

Launched in 2009, the Missouri Farm to School Project, a partnership between University of Missouri Extension and the Missouri Council on Activity and Nutrition (MoCAN), works with players on both sides of the farm-to-school equation — schools, farmers, vendors and communities — to bring fresh, flavorful foods into school cafeterias. The emphasis, partnership organizers say, is squarely on “flavorful.”

“It’s hard to compete against pizza, chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers, but we’ve noticed that — from kindergarten students to high schoolers — if something tastes good, they are going to eat it,” says Lorin Fahrmeier, University of Missouri Extension farm to school state coordinator.

section divider

Providing alternatives to school lunch norms has never been of higher concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12 years to 19 years who were obese increased from 5 to 18 percent over the same period. In Missouri, CDC statistics cited by the Department of Heath and Senior Services indicated that “29 percent of Missouri high school students are overweight or obese, compared with 28 percent nationwide.”

The CDC is promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables through its own “Fruits and Veggies –More Matters” effort, arguing that fruit and vegetable consumption is an “evidence-based intervention” shown to reduce obesity and chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

For its part, the USDA is working to mitigate ill-health effects by educating both parents and kids about the benefits, both to local economies and individuals’ health, when fresh fruits and vegetables appear on the dinner table. Education campaigns can only go so far, however, particularly with kids. Children will choose healthier food, farm-to-school advocates say, only if it’s tasty.

And nothing beats the flavor of fresh-from-the-farm produce, Missouri farm-to-school participants say. Take local watermelon, says Ken Llewellyn, food service director for Crane R-III School District with a certification from the Maryland-based School Nutrition Association. “It’s sweet; it’s fresh; the students have the juice dripping off their elbows,” he says. “They can’t get enough of it.”

Charlotte Gamblin, food service director for the Warrensburg R-VI School District, began exploring farm-to-school at the request of her superintendent. She says she was sold on incorporating local food items into the school menu after finding she could secure affordable produce via auctions of produce grown by local Amish families. Because neither her district nor any of the others featured in this article receive grants or other special funding to support their farm-to-school activities, keeping costs down is a must. Lunchroom staffs also pay a price. Preparing local foods is much more involved than re-heating fish sticks and tater tots.

“It’s worth it because of the health and nutritional value for the kids,” Gamblin says. “Even the kids comment on how colorful the foods are, and I know they’re eating it because I don’t see it in the trash.”

At Columbia Public Schools, nutrition services director Laina Fullum says benefits aren’t restricted to kids eating more nutritious lunches. Farm-to-school programs also help students become enthusiastic about eating well.

“When the students see the deliveries coming in, that’s an exciting time for them,” she says.

section divider

Fullum concedes students can be hesitant to embrace unfamiliar menu items. But there have been some surprising triumphs, too, she says. Once students tried local asparagus, for example, they were clearly smitten. “That was one of our most popular items, if you can believe it,” Fullum says. “We couldn’t keep enough in.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, many parents find such tales of enthusiastic vegetable consumption almost too good to be true. Fahrmeier reports schools are getting calls from incredulous moms asking, “You got my child to eat broccoli?”

$lsquo;The public is becoming more and more connected to the food they’re eating, and that goes hand-in-hand with schools becoming more aware also.’ Absolutely, she says. When broccoli is picked fresh — and not cooked into mush — it tastes good. When broccoli tastes good, students, even the most finicky among them, will eat it.

Farm-to-school boosters say the most successful programs don’t just rely on attractive, tasty food. They also encourage students with engagement opportunities. This might mean a field trip to a farm, or posting signs along the lunch line calling attention to menu items made from local ingredients.

“A lot of schools make it known they’re serving apples from Farmer John,” explains Bill McKelvey, coordinator of MU’s Food Pantry Nutrition Project and a former director of the Missouri Farm to School Project. “Because it’s local, they can tell the story of that food, and that’s another tool in their toolbox to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.”

Bad lunch: pizza, brownie, tater tots, chocolate milk and ketchup.
food fight A recent attempt by the USDA to boost school-lunch nutrition requirements was thwarted by Congress, ensuring that pizza and tater tots continue to be classified as ”vegetables.“

Schools will need more such tools to promote fruit and vegetable increases under new federal nutrition standards. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Obama in December 2010, is the legislative centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative to reduce childhood obesity.

The act has given the USDA its first chance to update school meal nutrition standards in 15 years. The proposed changes, based on recommendations by the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine, aim to reduce levels of saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and calories in school meals while increasing fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fate or fat-free milk. Schools that meet the updated standards will receive an additional 6 cents per meal, the first real reimbursement rate increase since 1973.

Not only will the new standards likely boost the popularity of farm-to-school programs, the act also includes provisions specific to the movement, including technical assistance and competitive matching grants available to farm-to-school projects. The grants, worth up to $100,000 per award, can be used for a wide range of activities, including training, developing school gardens and helping communities establish local farm-to-school networks.

“In the future, we see the administration of farm-to-school grants to be a large component of the continued growth of farm-to-school efforts,” says USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee.

Closer to home, organizers of the Missouri Farm to School Project say they are working toward three main objectives to support farm-to-school activities. First, they plan to provide technical assistance to schools, farmers and local food networks. Next, they’re educating the public about the benefits of farm-to-school programs. And finally, project members hope to encourage Missouri state legislators to provide state-level farm-to-school support.

Program officials say they have made much progress on the first objective. They have developed, for example, a cookbook, Seasonal and Simple for Food Service, that provides ideas on how to use local produce in simple-to-prepare dishes. So far, more than 2,000 copies have gone out to schools. “It’s wonderful,” Laina Fullum says.

From Farm to Dining Hall

MU’s Campus Dining Services has gotten in on the farm-to-school movement with a menu that features local fruits, vegetables, honey, beef, eggs — even local shellfish.

“It's become a very hot topic the last couple of years,” says MU Campus Dining executive chef, Eric Cartwright. “More and more students are asking, ‘Where does the food come from?’”

While local purchases comprise just 2 percent to 3 percent of Campus Dining’s annual budget, in August and September, when mid-Missouri farmers are harvesting several crops, some 15 to 20 percent of Campus Dining's produce budget goes toward Missouri products.

For Cartwright, it's not so much about buying local as buying quality.

“If the choice is between a local potato chip or a potato chip produced several states away, no one is going to know the difference,”he says. “But if it's a piece of melon that was picked yesterday and is perfectly ripe, students go nuts over it.”

Campus Dining began its effort to bring in local foods in 2009. At first, it was a matter of just finding whatever was available, but now, Cartwright says, local producers are beginning to plan their seasons with Campus Dining in mind, and some are even investing in new growing methods, such as high tunnels, a kind of unheated greenhouse, to extend their growing seasons.

“I think now that we're developing distribution channels, we're going to see more growers investing to provide for us later in the year,” Cartwright says. “Local folks are realizing they shouldn’t be hesitant to call local schools because there is opportunity.”

Fruits and vegetables

The project has also hosted training events, such as those with the cooking demonstrations this summer. Fullum recalls that it was through a Missouri Farm to School Project seminar that she was able to meet MU Campus Dining executive chef Eric Cartwright. He, in turn, helped her connect with the local produce broker, Missouri Food for Missouri People. Charlotte Gamblin says that it was through Missouri Farm to School Project training that she learned how to approach farmers about fresh food options.

 The project is developing another resource to strengthen such networking possibilities. The “Food Finder” database, an Internet-based tool, will make it easier for farmers and food service directors — as well as produce brokers and distributors that sell local foods — to learn of each others’ needs and offerings. “The point of the website is to help build those connections and relationships,” Fahrmeier says, “but after that, it’s up to the farmers and the people buying from them to complete those transactions.”

As for raising public awareness, the project has created a radio campaign, sent out press releases tailored to different areas of the state, launched a Facebook page, created videos featuring “local champs” sharing their farm-to-school stories via the video-sharing site Vimeo, and developed a website with sections specific to food service professionals, farmers, vendors and parents.

Project officials say there has been progress on the legislative front as well. During last year’s session, the Missouri General Assembly passed a bill establishing a Farm-to-Table Advisory Board. The board will recommend strategies intended to help school lunch programs and farmers work more closely together. It will include at least one representative from MU Extension.

The message throughout is that the benefits of farm-to-school are not hard to realize. “Farm-to-school can seem overwhelming because we’re changing how we feed our students, but it’s not meant to be overwhelming. It’s about taking baby steps,” Fahrmeier says.

section divider

A 2009 national Farm to School Network report, Bearing Fruit: Farm to School Program Evaluation Resources and Recommendations, authored by Joshi, provides a table summarizing how these “baby steps” benefit students, teachers, food service programs, farmers, and parents.

The Missouri Farm to School Project website also writes glowingly of the project’s potential to improve the health of Missourians, provide opportunities for Missouri’s farmers, and create stronger local economies and communities. Still, organizers admit, there are few hard numbers to show conclusively that farm-to-school is accomplishing these goals.

“We need to be documenting the impacts for researchers to present them to policymakers,” Joshi says.

Agreed, says Audrey Spalding, an analyst for the Show-Me Institute, a free-market public policy think tank for the state of Missouri. Spalding argues that, without hard evidence showing locally sourced food improves student nutrition, it makes little sense to forego options that are just as nutritious but less expensive.
“If it’s not the safest, cheapest and most nutritious, why force it?” she asks. Spalding adds that the “more flavorful” argument — that fresh is best because it tastes better — doesn’t hold true with products such as eggs, meat and minimally processed local foods such as salsas.

Some free market proponents also question whether schools should be forced to spend their resources to, in effect, subsidize local farms. Others wonder whether such an arrangement is even good for farmers.

Sarah Brodsky, an independent policy analyst in St. Louis, explains that trading over long distances allows farmers to specialize in crops that thrive in their local climates and soils, and then sell those crops profitably in regions that lack these advantages.

“When a policy like farm-to-school asks farmers to cater to the needs of local districts, it’s taking the benefits of specialization away from them and leaving them in a worse economic position,” she says.

“In uncertain economic times, there’s no guarantee that a program in place today will survive budget cuts tomorrow. And if the program is cut at some point, local farmers are left out in the cold because they’ve been producing crops for the program rather than crops that they can sell to a broader market.”

At the USDA, Lavallee concedes more research is needed. But he insists that what evidence there is shows that farm-to-school activities are having positive effects on student nutrition and local economies.

“Although current evaluations related specifically to the impact of farm-to-school initiatives are limited, several reports have highlighted the positive effects of farm-to-school activities on a small scale,” he says. The National Agricultural Library’s Farm to School Bibliography, he adds, highlights some of this research.

The Missouri project, meanwhile, is busy gathering its own data. A 2010 Missouri Farm to School Project survey, for example, showed that, while an estimated 10 percent of Missouri’s 754 public and private National School Lunch Program participants serve local food, almost 90 percent of the 421 respondents reported an interest in using local foods in the future.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Fahrmeier says of the high interest. “The public is becoming more and more connected to the food they’re eating, and that goes hand-in-hand with schools becoming more aware also.

 “There are so many important facets that this movement touches,” she adds. “There are educational, nutritional, economic and environmental impacts that could all be rather significant. I feel like we’re just starting to get our gears going.”

section divider

Good Eating Gains Ground

A growing interest in farm-to-school programs goes right along with public enthusiasm for "eating local" in general. Between 1997 and 2007, direct-to-consumer sales of food products rose from $551 million to $1.2 billion, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. The number of farmers' markets, meanwhile, climbed to 5,274 in 2009, up from 1,755 in 1994 and 2,756 in 1998, according to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

At MU, there are several angles of interest when it comes to local food — sustainability, effects on the environment, economic development, health impacts, social justice, food safety, rural resiliency and food security. Research and projects related to local food find homes in a wide range of University disciplines, from the Missouri Value Added Development Center in MU's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources' Department of Agricultural Economics to the School of Social Work in the College of Human Environmental Sciences.

MU Extension is particularly active in the local food realm. Its Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program, operational since the mid-1990s, aims to foster "a desirable quality of life for people through agricultural systems that are ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible." Its Food Circles Networking Project is concerned with developing a community-based, sustainable food system through reshaping the relationships that surround food.

section divider

From Farm to Dining Hall

MU’s Campus Dining Services has gotten in on the farm-to-school movement with a menu that features local fruits, vegetables, honey, beef, eggs — even local shellfish.

“It's become a very hot topic the last couple of years,” says MU Campus Dining executive chef, Eric Cartwright. “More and more students are asking, ‘Where does the food come from?’”

While local purchases comprise just 2 percent to 3 percent of Campus Dining’s annual budget, in August and September, when mid-Missouri farmers are harvesting several crops, some 15 to 20 percent of Campus Dining's produce budget goes toward Missouri products.

For Cartwright, it's not so much about buying local as buying quality.

“If the choice is between a local potato chip or a potato chip produced several states away, no one is going to know the difference,”he says. “But if it's a piece of melon that was picked yesterday and is perfectly ripe, students go nuts over it.”

Campus Dining began its effort to bring in local foods in 2009. At first, it was a matter of just finding whatever was available, but now, Cartwright says, local producers are beginning to plan their seasons with Campus Dining in mind, and some are even investing in new growing methods, such as high tunnels, a kind of unheated greenhouse, to extend their growing seasons.

“I think now that we're developing distribution channels, we're going to see more growers investing to provide for us later in the year,” Cartwright says. “Local folks are realizing they shouldn’t be hesitant to call local schools because there is opportunity.”

Back to Top

Post a Comment

Reader comments are reviewed by Illumination staff before they are posted, so please keep your message civil and appropriate. All fields are required.

– Will not be published

Back to Top

University of Missouri

Published by the Office of Research

© 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri