More schools trying to serve Washington-grown food — but it isn't easy
More schools are putting Washington-grown food on the cafeteria menu and farms are increasingly interested in selling to schools, but getting locally grown products onto lunch trays is no easy matter.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Aahh, the Snoqualmie Valley. All that fertile land. All those vegetables. All that ...
Wait a minute, parents inevitably wonder: Shouldn't that blushing-fresh produce be winding up in my kid's lunchroom?
Tricia Kovacs is here to tell you it is. Or, at least, it is in some schools. Sometimes.
Kovacs is in charge of the state's Farm-to-School Program, which was created in 2008 by legislation intended to make it easier to get more local food into school cafeterias. In recent years, Kovacs said, more and more schools have been putting Washington-grown food on the menu. Farms, too, are increasingly interested in selling to schools.
Still, while all that produce may be only a few miles away, getting it onto lunch trays is no easy matter. Even proponents concede it can be a logistical feat. And with astonishingly tight lunch budgets, even spending a few more pennies on an apple can push it out of reach.
"The things that are stopping people are real challenges," Kovacs said. "But we also are learning every day ways school districts and farms have found to overcome some of them."
One of the biggest changes is in attitudes. It used to be just parents and food advocates were the ones pushing for local food. Today, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on it, with proposed changes to purchasing rules and even farm-to-school webinars to show how it can be done.
"It's very active right now from the national level down to the local level," Kovacs said. "It used to feel like the schools needed to be pushed. Now I'm hearing from schools and they're so excited."
How many schools serve local food? Numbers just don't exist — yet (Kovacs said she's working on a survey).
What she does know, however, is that this year, dozens of school districts on Wednesday will join in on Taste Washington Day, an event organized by Kovacs' program and the Washington School Nutrition Association. Schools are free to participate, or not. The idea is simply to feature Washington-grown items on school menus.
That's good for both the kids and the farms, Kovacs said.
First of all, local produce tastes better than something from afar, which means kids will eat more of it, she believes. It also boosts the local economy and helps farmers.
Kovacs hopes the annual one-day event will make lasting connections between farmers and lunchroom managers.
Some districts have made those connections already and regularly feature local food on their menus. Olympia, for instance, spends 30 percent of its produce budget buying directly from local farms.
In the past few years, La Conner students, meanwhile, have drunk smoothies made of local strawberries and eaten apples from the Skagit Valley, among other local items. Next year, said food-services manager Georgia Johnson, the district is hoping to buy its own cows, which will be raised on a Samish Island farm and used for meat.
The Auburn School District spent about $100,000 of its produce budget last year with Terra Organics, a Tacoma-area farm best known for its home-delivered produce boxes. It's just a fraction of the district's lunch budget, but school-lunch aficionados view it as significant.
The district got all of its potatoes from local farms, and served up lots of other produce, including local radishes, carrots and even baby cucumbers grown specially for them. They also serve produce fresh from a school garden — that's as local as it gets.
But none of this is easy. First of all, there's the little matter of the seasons. School's out of session when local farms are at their height. Even during prime growing times, Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate — and schools can't just wing it. They've got thousands of kids to feed. Big distributors, like Food Services of America (FSA), are the safe bet because they can always get product from somewhere.
Then there's the cost. In most schools, the food budget for each lunch is about $1. That means roughly 15 to 25 cents total per meal for salad, fruits and vegetables — not a lot to play with.
On Taste Washington Day, La Conner, for example, will spend about 15 percent more than usual on its lunch — a potato-bar blowout, with spuds, green onions, broccoli, gourmet cheese, apples, raspberries and even ham julienne, all from the Skagit Valley.
School districts can absorb that cost for one day. But year-round? Unlikely, especially considering most already operate their meal programs at a loss.
Districts use the big distributors because they help keep costs down, school-lunch managers said.
"The pre-cut items offered by the main purveyors simply cannot be beat on price," noted Eric Boutin, who recently started running the Seattle School District's meal program.
"We can't just go spend an extra 10 cents on an apple because we want to," he added. And he's a guy who has been recognized for his work getting more local food in school cafeterias. In his previous job, with Auburn, Boutin was behind the switch to all-local potatoes, and worked hard to get many other local foods in the door, as well. Now he's trying to make changes in Seattle, too, by "pushing hard" on the big distributors to stock Washington-grown items.
When local food is priced right, Boutin orders it.
A niche market
But there's another factor to consider: the work involved. Order your carrots from FSA, and they're already cut into easy-to-eat bullets or coins or sticks. A farmer over in Carnation, on the other hand, doesn't have processing equipment. He'll likely send his carrots over whole. And farm-fresh produce often comes with farm-fresh dirt. Scrubbing is an extra step.
Same goes for the local cheese on La Conner's Wednesday menu, from Golden Glen Creamery. It comes in big blocks, not pre-grated like cheese from a distributor. More work.
Moreover, FSA delivers directly to walk-in refrigerators, school by school. Most local farmers can't do that. In Auburn, they deliver to a central warehouse. Then the district has to cart it out to each school. Yet more work.
"It does take a certain kind of dedication," La Conner's Johnson said.
And consider this: It's one thing to support your local farmer down the road. It's another thing entirely to get local apples from one farmer, carrots from another, and potatoes from still another.
"Do we want schools to buy 'locally grown food?' " Boutin asks. "Or do we want school districts to buy from individual farmers? To deal with five or 10 or 30 individual farmers instead of one middle person means more costs."
Even a school garden — a favorite of food activists here and around the country — takes a lot of work. In Auburn, much of that falls to Carol Barker, assistant supervisor for child nutrition there. Spring, summer and early fall, she digs and picks and tries not to get dirt under her nails before dashing back to her regular job of making lunch happen for 7,600 kids a day. Then, on her way home from work, she delivers the produce to the schools. With all that, only a few schools get any.
"To do this on a small basis like we do, it doesn't pay," she said. "It's more of a teaching tool."
Supplying schools isn't always the easiest thing for farmers, either. Because of worries about food-borne illness, schools sometimes require extra insurance or safety procedures. And farmers don't necessarily earn as much selling to schools as they do, say, at farmers markets.
"For the most part, we don't have a list of farmers lining up," Boutin said.
With all that's in the way, however, some farmers have carved out their own niche in the school market.
American Produce Express of Omak was struggling until coming up with a novel idea: selling sliced apples, and also smaller, kid-sized ones, to schools.
"That was a perfect fit for us," said owner John Butler.
Thanks to the local-food movement, and schools' interest in healthier choices, his business has grown. He's been selling exclusively to schools for several years, and supplies 60 to 70 districts.
Meanwhile, Growing Washington, a Bellingham farmers co-op, has been selling regularly to five school districts and Western Washington University, according to Director Clayton Burrows. Recently, he said, they supplied Seattle with some cucumbers and carrots — a foot in the door.
"Our motto is start small, but start something," he said.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or email@example.com
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