Lunchroom Legalities

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Like the aroma of re-heated chili, a dangerous myth hangs over this nation’s school cafeterias. It’s the find of falacy that could do real damage to our children, as well as local, environmenally-friendly agriculture. It goes like this: federal law makes it illegal to favor local farmers when purchasing food for public schools. Unfortunately, its lack of factual basis hasn’t prevented this piece of misinformation from being repeated at school board meetings, in the offices of superintendents, at PTA meetings—wherever the issue of getting good food into our brain factories comes up. It’s become a handy excuse for denying kids something other than MacSlop at the cafeteria. Let’s put this lie down for good, so we can go on with the business of figuring out how to make connections between the land and the lunchroom. Here’s the straight dope on local foods and school meal programs:

The 2002 Farm Bill includes language that explicitly allows the procurement of local food for school food service programs. In fact, Section 4303 of the Farm Bill does more than “allow” such efforts. The law says the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture “shall encourage institutions participating in the school lunch program under this chapter and the school breakfast program…to purchase, in addition to other food purchases, locally produced foods for scool meal programs, to the maximum extent practicable and appropriate.”

According to a memorandum produced by the Harrison Institute for Public Law, some of the confusion around the legality of geographic preferences for school food can be traced to some older statutes, as well as past “hostility” shown toward such efforts by the USDA and federal Office of Management and Budget. Because school districts often commingle state and federal funds in their budgets, they believe they are bound to old federal regulations prohibiting geograpic preferences. Even if older
regulations did prohibit local preferences, and that’s open to interpretation, the Harrison Institute’s memo makes it clear that the 2002 Farm Bill trumps previous statute.

In fact, in 2004, Congress provided even more support for local food purchasing intiatives when it passed the Child Nutrition and Reauthorization Act. In Section 122 of that law, it states that the USDA may provide assistance to programs “designed to procure local foods from small- and medium-sized farms for school meals…” The legislation is supposed to create a seed grant fund to cover the initial costs of farm to cafeteria projects, including equipment, nutrition education and school gardens.
Now comes the tricky part: so far the federal government has failed to back up this support with money. It’s needed at a time when many schools lack basic food preparation facilities, and farmers hoping to supply these institutions need facilities and equipment to adhere to health regulations. Many schools lack even basic facilities—they simply receive the pre-packaged food from a central mega-kitchen, warm it up, and hand it out to kids who have literally 15 minutes to bolt their food.

The Land Stewardship Project is working with several other organization to get solid funding for farm to school efforts put into the 2007 Farm Bill. The recently passed House bill did little in that direction, but there’s real hope that the Senate’s version, which will be debated after the August recess, will. Now’s the time to contact Senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar—both are on the Senate Ag Committee—and tell them you want real support for farm to school programs (as well as a Farm Bill that’s more accountable to the public in general).

Meanwhile, schools and local farmers are already showing that there are ways to feed children vegetables other than through a ketchup bottle. One of the strangest twists to this whole issue is that some school districts are getting local foods to their students through a program run by the Department of Defense. After complaints from politicians that the quality of food was often better at military bases than at our schools, the military put its massive distribution system to work for farm to school programs.

We have good examples of farm to school initiatives right here in the Upper Midwest. In Minnesota, the Hopkins and Willmar school districts are just two examples. Local districts in Iowa and Wisconsin are also using innovative strategies to provide real brain food. Lynn Mader, who is working with the University of Minnesota’s West Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership on developing farm to school programs, says 950 school districts in 35 states are now buying fresh produce from local farmers, or are telling their wholesale vendors they want more locally grown food.

Now don’t get too excited: as I wrote about in the Land Stewardship Letter a few years ago, these are true baby steps. One school district is offering cut apples from a local orchard for snacks, for example. Another is offering milk and other dairy products from a local organic dairy. We’ve got a long ways to go. The most successful programs integrate local food procurement with a curriculum that teaches kids about the nutritional, environmental and econmic benefits of local food. School districts that have teamed up with local university reseachers to gauge the impacts of local food on student performance and behavior are also showing some real creativity.

A great source of information on how to set up a farm to school program is the Community Food Security Coalition. Looking at the Coalition’s website, it’s exciting to see what can be accomplished once certain barriers are removed. In the case of the “federal government doesn’t allow geographic preference” rumor, let’s consider that barrier mashed potatoes once and for all.

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