Columnist Claire Morenon: Back to school and harvest season

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 25, 2017, by Claire Morenon

Driving around this time of year, you’ll see two sure signs of fall: school buses packed full of kids, and farm trucks piled high with potatoes, squash, and other hardy vegetables.

Increasingly, those vehicles may be headed to the same place. Massachusetts Farm to School, the leading farm-to-school organization in the state, estimates that over 200 schools are purchasing food from local farms.

Farm-to-school partnerships offer a lot of benefits to schools, students, and local farms. Joanne Lennon, director of food service for the Chicopee public schools, says, “We find local products to be superior in freshness and taste, and the kids can tell the difference when we serve local food — I have high schoolers asking for seconds when we serve Hadley asparagus.”

Working with schools offers tremendous sales potential for farmers. Last year, K-12 schools in Massachusetts served 86,464,151 meals to over 531,000 students. Joe Czajkowski, who has a farm in Hadley, has found that school dining services staff are extremely supportive partners. He says, “It works for us, because produce that’s getting used in food service is just as high quality as what the grocery stores want, but it’s OK if the size or shape is a little odd.”

To understand the relationships between farms and K-12 schools, you’ve got to know a little about the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). This is a federally assisted meal program that serves 30.4 million children per year, and the systems, structures and meals at public schools revolve around it.

NSLP provides cash subsidies and commodity foods to participating schools for each meal they serve. Schools must meet federal nutrition requirements and provide reduced-price or free meals to eligible children. As of July 2017, schools are reimbursed $3.46 for each meal served to a student eligible for free lunch, $3.06 for each reduced-price lunch, and 46 cents for each paid lunch.

In addition to cash reimbursements, schools receive a limited array of foods that are purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and provided to each state. Last year, Massachusetts schools received commodity foods valued at more than $24.8 million.

At most schools, meals aren’t included in the general school budget, and the federal reimbursements and commodity foods help form the backbone of the school lunch budget. With the reimbursement rate topping out at $3.46 to cover food costs and labor, school lunch budgets are stretched very, very thin.

It’s a real challenge to add in the additional labor required to source food from multiple local farm vendors, and to turn whole produce into meals precisely calibrated to the federal nutrition requirements. And, of course, local options are limited during much of the school year.

School districts have landed on a number of solutions that enable them to provide meals within these financial and logistical constraints. Some school districts contract with external food service management companies which have their own food procurement policies. Other school districts have centralized their meal preparation, so school kitchens reheat precooked meals and no longer have the staff or equipment to prepare meals in-house.

Sometimes these changes limit the local purchasing possibilities, and sometimes they expand them—for example, the culinary and school nutrition center being built in Springfield will serve multiple school districts and includes a commitment to local food.

Since 2010, the Community Eligibility Provision has allowed schools in high-poverty districts to provide free lunches to all students, skipping the paperwork associated with evaluating eligibility. Some schools are using those savings — and the increased participation in school lunch that results — to boost local purchasing.

School food service directors and local farmers are finding ways to overcome the challenges inherent in farm-to-school relationships. Some local farmers have added some processing capacity on their farm, so they can deliver peeled, chopped produce to schools. Some schools run feeding programs year-round, and during the summer months they buy produce and freeze it themselves. And we’re lucky to have Massachusetts Farm to School working behind the scenes statewide to connect schools to local farms and figure out ways to support those relationships.

A sustainable, egalitarian local food system includes making healthy local food available to the youngest members of our community, and school lunch programs offer a pathway to make that possible. With active support from all of us — parents, school committees, community members — we can put the healthiest, freshest, local food on every plate!

Claire Morenon is communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.