Mature grapefruit and avocado trees line one side of Magnolia elementary school in sunny Upland, California, a small city about half an hour east of Los Angeles. About 120 students participate in the school’s garden club where, in addition to learning about gardening and farming, they enjoy the literal fruits of their labor when their food is harvested and served in Upland unified school district cafeterias.
“It helps them understand the produce they’re seeing in the salad bar,” says Upland unified’s farm-to-school manager, Cassidy Furnari.
Thanks to an increased interest in local foods, farm-to-school programs and school gardens in recent years, some school meals are looking a lot different from the frozen and processed foods that have been associated with school cafeterias for generations.
Advocates say serving fresh and local foods increases students’ access to and consumption of nutritious foods and improves school meal quality and participation rates – benefits that are more important than ever as American children face a hunger crisis due to the expiration of pandemic-era programs.
According to the USDA’s 2019 farm-to-school census, about 43 million children participate in farm-to-school programs every year, and nearly 68,000 schools feature local foods on their menu. Districts like Upland are setting new standards for school meals, sourcing from local growers and bakeries, taking field trips to farms, and hosting monthly taste tests of produce such as candy cane beets and rainbow carrots so students can expand their palates.
“The pandemic played a role,” says Upland unified’s nutrition services director, Ksenia Glenn, of the district’s shift to local foods. “We wanted to diversify our supply chain, but I think more than that we wanted to support local farmers and get the freshest, most delicious food grown here in the Inland Empire.”
California is leading efforts to build a healthy, equitable and more resilient food system through its universal free school meals program. In October, the USDA announced it had signed a cooperative agreement with the state of California for more than $23m to increase the purchase of local foods, which the agency defines as food that’s produced in state or less than 400 miles (640km) away.
And in November, the California department of food and agriculture announced $25.5m in funding for 120 farm-to-school projects across the state as part of the California farm-to-school incubator grant program. Upland unified is a grantee, receiving $69,500 from the program to build additional school gardens; grow culturally relevant fruits, vegetables and herbs in the gardens; and hire educators.
We wanted to diversify our supply chain, support local farmers and get the freshest, most delicious food grown here
Ksenia Glenn of the Upland unified school district in California
The benefits of school cafeterias going local are numerous. Food travels fewer miles and requires less time in storage. Farm-to-school programs often work with regenerative producers who use climate-smart agricultural practices. Buying locally improves racial justice by promoting marginalized farmers and ranchers – who tend to own small and mid-size farms – and increases food security via healthier school meals. By procuring local products, schools are also increasing economic resilience in their own communities.
“What really helps farming families are anchor partners who order week after week in pallet-size quantities,” says Anna Knight, a fifth-generation farmer at Old Grove Orange who supplies the Upland school district with produce such as pre-sliced cantaloupe, valencia oranges and organic watermelon radish – all picked within 24 hours of delivery. “Not only do we get to survive as farmers, but we get to have kids having a gastronomic experience.”
Source: The Guardian