Helping Students Eat Healthy; an editorial

UMass Graduate, Emily French, and Stockbridge School of Agriculture Instructor, Catherine Sands, recently published this editorial in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

WILLIAMSBURG – There’s a lot of talk about school food these days, thanks in part to Michele Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, and to the people chipping away at a top-heavy system that doesn’t stress fresh healthy food and the educational opportunities that abound when students learn how their food is grown and how to find it close to home.

The Farm to School movement is growing faster than we can count. Steps to provide healthy, fresh food at school meals and to build purchasing relationships between farms and institutions abound.

Fertile Ground, a grassroots farm to school initiative, recently produced a School Food and Community Forum at the Jackson Street and Williamsburg elementary schools. Funding from Cooley Dickinson Hospital and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts provided us with the means to facilitate two afternoons of conversation and resource sharing among teachers, food service staff, school administrators, nurses and families. Over 80 people from 20 schools attended.

These conversations now ripple out into our communities.

Here’s some of what we heard: We know that farm-to-school programs are in over 10,000 schools in all 50 states. In Massachusetts alone, over 300 public school districts, private schools and colleges are directly purchasing locally grown food from more than 110 farms.

School gardens enhance classroom learning and cafeteria choices with the hands-on experience that comes from growing our own food. We are making curriculum connections in math, science, language arts, history and economics – to teach the story of what we eat and why.

In Williamsburg, a collaboration with the local Grange brings town elders into the classroom to make jam. Students visit a neighboring sugar shack. These experiences teach children about food as a system – the whole path from farm to fork, as author Michael Pollan puts it. Snacking on kale, tomatoes, sorrel and raspberries in their school garden helps expand their palettes.

At the two forum events, we addressed new USDA regulations requiring schools to serve more fresh produce, whole grains and other healthy foods. We heard that public school food service departments are in the process of implementing new USDA food regulations. These include hefty servings of leafy greens and orange/red vegetables like squash, carrots, and beets. This is a great opportunity for our region, as our farms grow an abundance of these kinds of vegetables.

Food service directors are trying all sorts of strategies. They are buying from the local apple orchard, collaborating on purchasing among school districts, entering into non-binding agreements with local farms for produce, processing and storing food during the summer and much more.

The ingenuity we’re seeing among food service staff is inspiring.

As a member of Farm to Institution in New England (FINE), the Mass. Farm to School Project is participating in a regional project that may result in New England dairy and beef cattle being processed into local ground beef for institutional markets.

We heard a food service director note that people unfairly blame that sector for the child obesity crisis.

Talk shifted to the topic of equipment needs – for instance, not having enough refrigeration space for fresh produce, inadequate stoves and a lack of steamers. We discussed a Franklin County food processing center’s flash-freezing pilot program, an effort to provide affordable, locally grown produce to schools and institutions during the agricultural off-season, thereby extending the season for local food in schools.

One Williamsburg teacher described how her students will taste anything in the school garden: raw garlic, cucumber, sorrel and arugula, collards and kale, broccoli, you name it. They invent and prepare new recipes from the produce they have grown for an annual harvest feast. But they hesitate to taste new recipes (often using the same ingredients) in the lunchroom.

How do we change this?

In response, a parent, asked the food service director whether she would share the recipe with parents, either by sending home recipe cards or publishing recipes in the school newsletter.

It takes multiple tasting of a new food for our kids to eat it, so encouraging parents to prepare the same new healthy dishes at home might make a difference in whether the kids will eat it at school.

Together they are building a plan.

Catherine Sands directs Fertile Ground, a grassroots farm-to-school initiative and teaches Community Food Systems and Food Justice and Policy at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Emily French is the Farm to Cafeteria Director for the Mass. Farm to School Project.