If a student doesn't want to eat the chicken nuggets, pepperoni pizza or nachos supreme that have become the mainstays of school lunch programs, the pickings can be pretty slim. Campus vending machines may offer potato chips, corn nuts or sodas -- even though federal rules prohibit their sale during the lunch hour. Or there might be fast food brought in from off campus. In California, according to a mail survey of California school district food service directors, 90% of high schools sell packaged fast foods and 72% permit advertising of brand-name fast foods and beverages on campus. But kids hoping for something healthful are often out of luck.
That's no longer the case in Compton. Beginning this month at Willard Elementary School and in coming months at the 23 other elementary schools in the Compton Unified School District, students will be able to eat food fresh from the farm. Salad bars will include different lettuce varieties, carrots, celery, radishes, broccoli, tomatoes, apples, oranges and, ultimately, whatever fruits and vegetables are in season, and the produce will come directly from small to medium-sized farms in the region. Assembly meetings will be held to introduce the program, and newsletters will be sent to parents. Students will be encouraged to participate in taste tests to explore how fresh produce -- a tomato, say -- really tastes when it's straight from the farm. Students will visit actual farms, and farmers will visit classrooms. Schools will institute garden programs to grow their own produce.
In the end, the program's proponents hope children will not only learn to make healthier food choices but will learn to value the farms and farmers that produce the food they eat. The boost to local farmers is an added benefit.
Tracie Thomas, the district's new assistant food service director, knows such programs can work. Prior to joining the Compton district last year, she spearheaded a highly successful farm-to-school salad bar program in the Santa Monica-Malibu School District. And she sees no reason why it shouldn't work in Compton as well, despite very different demographics. In Compton's elementary schools, for example, all 18,000 students are eligible for a free lunch program. In Santa Monica-Malibu, the district of about 13,000 students feeds approximately 4,000 students in all grades, and only half receive free or reduced-price lunches.
"I know this is going to be challenging," Thomas said. "But I have no qualms this can be done."
If she's successful in Compton, Thomas will have shown that there's no reason why any school district in California can't move toward more healthful food. Across the country, about 400 school districts in 22 states are participating in farm-to-school programs. In California, with the advantage of its year-round growing season, almost 100 schools in 20 districts are serving local fresh fruit and vegetable choices to their students. And there's a reason to hope the trend continues: Farm-to-school programs have been shown to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by more than 40% and also to decrease food waste.
There are, to be sure, also a number of challenges for the programs. The price for the fresh produce purchased locally from farms is higher for certain items. Although the cost in Santa Monica of a full salad-bar meal including milk, bread and a protein item is less than the cost of a hot meal like pepperoni pizza (49 cents per meal versus $1.18 per meal, according to Thomas), other districts have found the costs to be higher for farm-fresh meals.
Other barriers include purchasing and delivery. Many school food service buyers prefer the simplicity of buying from a single distributor that then transports the food to the site.
But the advantages of farm-to-school programs are clear, particularly when considered in light of the increasing prevalence of overweight children. Between 1980 and 2000, the rate of overweight kids tripled among school-age children, from 5% in 1980 to 15% in 2000. U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona has labeled obesity the nation's single biggest health problem. Although food choice does not represent the only factor influencing this trend, it is a logical place to intervene.
Much of the focus for intervention so far has been to try to get the fast food and the junk food out of school vending machines. Several school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, have passed resolutions banning or restricting the sale of sodas and junk food on campus. This is an important step, but it's not the final answer. Kids need to learn how and what to eat. Providing fresh foods, while at the same time teaching where the foods come from, can provide lifelong lessons to kids while encouraging and rewarding small farmers.
Legislative help for such programs may be on the way. This year, Congress will vote on a "Farm to Cafeteria Projects" bill. The program would provide one-time grants of up to $100,000 to school districts wanting to institute farm-to-school programs.
At the state level in California, policy initiatives under discussion include funding to set up kitchens and gardens in all new schools, providing bonus reimbursements for school food made with fresh local produce, providing seed grants to support innovative programs and taxing sodas and junk food in order to fund more healthful options.
Freeing schools and students from the grip of fast food won't be easy. But, as districts across the state are demonstrating, it is possible.