SMITHSBURG, MARYLAND — Over the din of a lunch line of second-graders, Jeffrey Proulx shows off the smorgasbord of locally raised products being served at Ruth Ann Monroe Primary School in Hagerstown, Maryland.
The bright red cherry tomatoes came from a farm not far from the school, which is located about 90 minutes from Washington. Pork, roasted in the school's kitchen, came from just over the border in Pennsylvania. Then there are the locally grown Asian pears, which are a big hit.
“Very sweet. The kids are really taking to the Asian pears,” Proulx said.
Proulx runs the cafeterias for the Washington County school district. The state of Maryland encourages all of its school districts to buy local. It’s part of a nationwide movement to improve the food served in school cafeterias while supporting family farmers.
Public schools feed more than 30 million kids each day. Roughly 20 million are low-income children who rely on federally-subsidized meals to prevent hunger so they can focus on learning.
Back to the kitchen
However, most schools don’t cook fresh meals. Box-to-oven foods, “fully processed, prepared items that are more heat-and-serve,” have become the norm, Proulx says.
Critics blame processed school meals for contributing to the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic.
New government rules aim to make cafeteria food healthier by mandating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as lower levels of salt and fat.
“The way to reach those new levels is to prepare it ourselves,” Proulx said.
That meant overcoming a barrier common in public schools today since many no longer have the equipment or the trained staff to prepare meals.
“We’re definitely taking a stretch back to our roots, which is, actually cooking food,” Proulx said.
Support your local farmer
While young minds need healthy food to grow, farmers need steady customers to thrive. Schools make attractive customers because they buy regularly and in large volume.
Just 20 kilometers from Monroe Primary School, J.D. Reinhart sells 5 to 10 percent of his apple and peach harvest to the Washington County school district. He says it makes good business sense.
“Your transportation cost is low,” Rinehart said. “And you don’t have to go use a broker or a seller that will take a commission off of you. So, it’s been nice in the fact that I can set my price and I know that’s what I’m going to get from the dock.”
And, he says, the apple money goes into the local economy.
“That enables us to update our facilities, to buy equipment locally,” Rinehart said. “Keeping the money right here in the region is huge, not only for us but for the people that benefit from [our purchases].”
“The Farm to School program has had great success thanks to Jeff Proulx, and continues to grow,” according to Leslie Hart, agriculture business development specialist with the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.
“In 2008, Washington County students were eating apples from Washington State,” on the other side of the country, Hart said. “In 2009, Washington County students were eating apples from Washington County, and that continues to this day.”
Brazil in the lead
With farm-to-school programs keeping money in the local economy while providing fresh food for local schoolkids, it’s easy to see why they have spread from six states in 1997 to all 50 today.
But the United States is not the world leader in the movement.
“The worldwide success story is Brazil,” said World Food Program school feeding expert Carmen Burbano.
Burbano notes that as president, Brazil’s Luis Inacio Lula da Silva won international recognition for his “Zero Hunger” anti-poverty plan.
“One of the cornerstones of that plan was the school feeding program,” she said. “But in 2009, they realized that this program, which was costing the government quite a bit of money, could also help to connect that program with family farmers.”
The program requires that 30 percent of school meal funds go to family farmers.
It feeds more than 45 million children and spent about $500 million on family farmers in 2010.
The World Food Program and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization are now working with the Brazilian government on a $2 million project to set up similar programs in several African countries.
By connecting African farmers to local schools, they aim to help both kids and farmers grow strong.