Schools Are Now Allowed to Buy Local, But Can They Afford It?

Cheap has been the rule when it comes to ingredients for school lunches. If lunch-program directors needed, say, apples, they had to buy those apples from the company that offered the cheapest bid—too bad if the fruit was mealy and sour, and trucked hundreds of miles. The rules were the rules, and directors had to take the lowest-priced apples, even if there were better ones grown around the corner.

That's no longer the case, thanks to a new USDA rule passed a few weeks ago and set to take effect May 23.

The wordy "Geographic Preference Option for the Procurement of Unprocessed Agricultural Products in Child Nutrition Programs" allows public schools (and other institutions) that operate "Child Nutrition Programs" to give preference to local produce, even if it's not the lowest priced.

"If you're a school in New York that wants local apples, or a school in Georgia looking for Georgia peaches, this makes a huge difference," says Megan Lott, program policy coordinator for the National Farm to School Network.

The problem is, schools still can't afford to pay for said apples. Last year there was a measly 6-cent raise passed for federal school lunch reimbursement funding, a "drop in the bucket," says Lott, who notes that advocates of increased funding were asking for 35 cents. Still, she figures school directors spend about 9 to 14 cents for each quarter- to half-cup serving of fruit and vegetables on the tray, so "six cents could add to that and mean something."

Ann Cooper, the "Renegade Lunch Lady" author and school lunch advocate, says the local foods rule is a little cart-before-the-horse. "Having the USDA push local food is the least of the problems in the system," she sighs. "What they really need to do is give us enough money and raise the guidelines so the chicken nuggets are out of there."

Yes the new rule removes a barrier to local produce, she says, but there are still so many other obstacles stemming from a lack of funding. "If you buy from a lot of little farmers, your incidental costs go up," she explains. "Someone has to stop what they're doing, check in the order, put it away. It's easier to do that once with a giant Sysco or United order, instead of 10 times with local farmers."

Cooper also points out that many of today's "lunch ladies" aren't even trained or equipped to deal with fresh whole produce. "Farm food may not be washed. You need a place to wash it, a place to cut it, a place to cook it, people who know how to deal with produce." Lott ruefully agrees that a lot of school lunch rooms basically consist of a freezer, a microwave, and a trash can these days. "We've taken away equipment, and we've taken away skills, but the exciting thing is that so many different groups are trying to make it better, and we're finding ways."

And until it does get better? I'll be packing my kid a lunch.

Illustration: CHOW.com