Public schools would be allowed to pay more for Washington produce as part of a new law promoted as a way to improve child nutrition while supporting Evergreen State farmers.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for us. We just need to connect with our farmers. … It’s great for kids to learn where food comes from – not from a can or a box,” said Lisa Chatterton, a dietitian and nutrition service supervisor for the Franklin Pierce School District in Parkland.
The Washington Environmental Council and others lobbied for the “Local Farms-Healthy Kids” legislation as a way to foster good health, plus support agriculture and sustainable living.
The $1.5 million measure provides $570,000 in school nutrition grants beginning next fall. But some school nutrition managers are skeptical about whether the law will change what children eat in school.
“It’s great for the state economy, the growers and the environment, but without added funding it’s not great for our kids,” said Eric Boutin, Auburn School District director of child nutrition services.
Although Boutin and other food service chiefs said they frequently buy Washington produce, such as apples, price is critical.
“How helpful is it to say you can pay more for the same apple?” Boutin asked.
School food service programs must balance their books. If food-related revenues fail to meet costs, Boutin said classroom spending may be shortchanged to make up for the deficit. As it is, 280 out of 294 school district food service programs lose money, he said.
Growers would be more than happy to sell to schools, said farmers Ron Cerqui of Fife and Tim Richter of Puyallup. But Cerqui and Richter said they don’t have the trucks or personnel to make the regular deliveries school food service managers have come to expect.
For example, in Tacoma, food is trucked to 57 school kitchens. “The distribution is key,” said Paul Scott, Tacoma School District nutrition services manager. He’d love to buy direct from farmers, he said, but he doesn’t have time.
Richter also pointed out that the school calendar doesn’t jibe with the local growing season.
He grows lettuce, cabbage, beans and peppers in Puyallup, but the bulk of his harvest doesn’t begin until May.
Right now, rhubarb is ripe, but schools aren’t likely to buy much of it. “How often are you going to eat rhubarb?” he asked.
At the same time, Boutin and other food service chiefs said it’s false to assume that schools don’t regularly serve Washington produce. “We buy, literally, tons of apples and pears and cherries,” Boutin said. “I actually got dried cherries through the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) commodities program.”
Many school cafeterias serve a variety of fruits and vegetables.
In Tacoma, for example, the lunch offerings always include four fruits and four vegetables – and sometimes a total of 10, said Paul Scott, nutrition services manager.
‘WE HAVE DONE AMAZING THINGS’
The state’s new grant program is modeled on a federal Department of Agriculture effort that provides fresh fruit and vegetables to 25 Washington schools in poor neighborhoods or communities. This year, the federal program provides $825,459 and benefits more than 9,000 students in the Evergreen State.
Unlike the federal program, which doesn’t place a geographic restriction on the source of the fruits and vegetables, the new state nutrition grants will require Washington-grown fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
In Auburn, where Boutin works, Pioneer Elementary School has for several years been a beneficiary of the federal nutrition grants. There’s a daily salad bar and an afternoon fruit or vegetable snack, plus regular nutrition lessons.
Pioneer students develop a preference for fruits and vegetables that carries on to middle school, said principal Debra Gary. “We have done amazing things with that grant,” she said.
Boutin is similarly enthusiastic, but said he can’t replicate the program at other schools without a subsidy.
The initial drafts of the Local Farms-Heathy Kids legislation provided $2 million for nutrition programs, but lawmakers pared it down. “It was a tough state budget year,” said Mo McBroom, who helped draft the measure for the Washington Environmental Council.
State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, a Seattle Democrat, said he sponsored the House version of the bill at the request of environmental groups. He endorses the measure’s potential to improve child nutrition and help small farms. But he doesn’t expect immediate change.
“We went in knowing this was the first rung of a very high ladder,” said Pettigrew, who is director of external affairs for Safeco Insurance. It may take years for schools to adapt purchasing practices to buy locally, he said.
PARENTS, PATIENCE MAKE IT WORK
McBroom said that alone won’t change the way schools buy food.
“It’s going to have to come from the parents,” she said.
That’s what happened in the Olympia School District, where the idea of buying local produce has taken hold. Paul Flock, the child nutrition supervisor, has been doing it since 2002.
He buys organic salad greens, apples, potatoes, plums, cauliflower, squash, frozen blueberries – even eggs – from 10 producers in Lewis and Thurston counties. Most of the food is served fresh in salad bars. (The eggs are hard-boiled first.)
Olympia’s commitment to local organic foods came about largely because parents asked for it, Flock said. It began at one school and has since expanded to all 18 Olympia schools.
Of Flock’s $125,000 annual produce budget, about 8 percent goes to local organic suppliers, he said. Because it was a small amount of money, the school district wasn’t obligated to go out to bid for organic produce.
Now, Flock believes he can raise that percentage to 25 percent and still balance his books.
“It’s a process you have to be patient with,” Flock said of his commitment to local farmers, which he noted requires an adjustment. “In the food service business we’re spoiled by the customer service we receive from vendors.”
For example, if he calls a wholesaler in the afternoon and asks for 500 pounds of potatoes, they’ll be on the curb at 5 a.m. the following day. Small farmers can’t do that.
And because local farm production can be erratic, wholesale deliveries are still his mainstay, Flock said.
As for growers, he tries to provide lots of lead time, so they know what he will buy. At the same time, he frequently buys surplus produce that farmers otherwise can’t market. “It’s a kind of safety net for some of them,” Flock said.
To help farmers sell to schools, the new law creates a farm-to-school program at the state Department of Agriculture. A coordinated effort could make it easier for local farmers to break into the school market, McBroom said.
“This is a big, huge ship we’re trying to turn, and it’s going to take a while,” she said. “The bill doesn’t change things from black to white. What it does is nudge things in the right direction.”
Susan Gordon: 253-597-8756