Local lunch

Bringing fresh foods to the school cafeteria

    Pizza. Chicken nuggets. Tater tots. Plates full of beige, government surplus food product. This is the standard fare found in your average school cafeteria. But the nutritional value of the food we’re serving our kids is increasingly being scrutinized by everyone from celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Rachael Ray to local grassroots organizations started by concerned parents. It goes all the way to the top, with first lady Michelle Obama taking a keen interest in child obesity and what kind of meals children are being provided at school.


    While most would agree the quality of food served in our schools leaves room for improvement, there is a lot of discussion over the cost associated with healthier ingredients. In a recent Times Herald-Record article, Washingtonville Schools Food Director Robert Gellman said, “We’d love to do fresh, but it all comes down to the bottom line,” a sentiment echoed by other food services directors, including Mike Robinson of the New Paltz schools.


Food budget woes may impact the selection of food schools can afford, but many people see farm to school initiatives as a natural connection to improving what is served in lunchrooms, especially in the Hudson Valley. “Kids need fresh fruits and vegetables and we grow them right here in New York State,” says Lisa Jessup, executive director of Common Ground Farm in Fishkill. The question is how to get the food beyond the farmers markets and onto cafeteria tables in the Valley. “A statewide farm to school program would benefit kids, local producers and our environment by keeping farms in business and keeping open space in the state as well.”


    The New York State Farm to School goal is to connect schools with local farms and food producers to strengthen local agriculture, improve student health, and promote regional food system awareness. There are about 110 farm to school programs in New York State. Currently none of them are in Orange, Ulster, Dutchess, or Sullivan counties.

    While the extent of the programs vary greatly, many see this a step in the right direction and are working to see that part of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act (CNA) includes provisions for farm to school programs. “One very big hurdle is the federal school lunch program and the budget that they allocate for these meals,” says Jessup.


    The CNA, which constitutes the majority of federal policy and resources for school food programs, is still in the process of being reauthorized. Under the current act, schools get reimbursed $2.68 for each free meal served. Part of the money is used toward the preparation costs associated with the meal, leaving most food service directors with less than a dollar to go toward the purchase of food.

    Critics argue that the reauthorization bills lack the increase in funding required to take school food programs to the level they should be at in order for food service directors to be able to provide fresher and healthier meals. This causes many directors to turn to processed food options instead of more expensive, fresh produce. (One reason local foods are more expensive is a result of the huge subsidies received by large agribusinesses that are not available to small scale farms.)


    “Eating locally grown food ensures that kids are getting the freshest and most nutrient dense food they can,” says Jessup. “These children are our future after all and while I am probably one of the few that thinks that prisoners should also have access to fresh local produce, our kids are getting institutional food on par with that served in prisons. Would you want to eat that?”

Janine Boldrin is a freelance writer who lives in West Point with her family.

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