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School cafeterias maneuver complexities of change and offer locally grown food


More schools are offering locally grown food in their cafeterias thanks to a federally sponsored farm-to-school lunch program. Here's Harvest Public Media contributor Rae Solomon.

RAE SOLOMON, BYLINE: Derrick Hoffman is poking around a dense row of bushy tomato plants on his 100-acre farm on the outskirts of Greeley in northern Colorado. He's filling a white plastic bucket with ripe cherry tomatoes that he's already sold to the local school district.

DERRICK HOFFMAN: These will go to Greeley-Evans School District here just down the road - what? - about five - we're miles from their warehouse.

SOLOMON: In about a week, kids will be snacking on them in nearby cafeterias.

DANIELLE BOCK: Want to try a fresh tomato?

SOLOMON: Like this one at Jackson Elementary, about 10 minutes down the road, where the first graders are helping themselves to the salad bar while nutrition services director Danielle Bock looks on.

BOCK: Tomatoes, celery, green peppers, all from Hoffman Farms.

SOLOMON: Hoffman's tomatoes and Bock's salad bar are part of a growing farm-to-school movement, revolutionizing the humble school lunch. When farm-to-school programming works as designed, kids fill their trees with fresh, nutritious food and local farm economies get a major boost. Hoffman's farm-to-school contracts bring in enough money that he was able to quit his off-the-farm job.

HOFFMAN: It's allowed us to grow. It's let us to do what we're doing.

SOLOMON: But while Hoffman and the schools he works with represent the best outcome of farm-to-school programs, they are hardly the norm. Getting local food into schools has proven frustratingly complicated.

CINDY LONG: We often hear that schools and producers initially don't talk the same language.

SOLOMON: Cindy Long administers the Farm to School Program at the United States Department of Agriculture.

LONG: Schools think about, oh, I need, you know, 7,500 servings of this. And farmers think in terms of, you know, bushels or crates.

SOLOMON: Beyond that, Long says the extra cost of local food is another roadblock. So is the need to train cafeteria staff and an admittedly bureaucratic purchasing system.

LONG: Schools and producers really just needed an ongoing source of support to help take folks from interest to actually being able to execute.

SOLOMON: Recent policy changes at the federal level make providing that support a new priority. Last year, the USDA started funneling unprecedented amounts of money to the effort. At least $260 million directly fund local food purchases and related farm-to-school infrastructure.

SUNNY BAKER: We have been describing it as trying to drink out of a fire hose.

SOLOMON: Sunny Baker with the National Farm to School Network, says all the federal money is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give school lunch a head-to-toe makeover and integrate it into local food systems.

BAKER: One of the best things that can come out of this, like, massive influx of money is going to be that we're developing really incredible examples of how this can work and, like, learning what's possible.

SOLOMON: In northern Iowa, for instance, those investments trickled down to the Clear Lake School District in the form of $8,000 grants to buy farm-fresh food through a network of regional food hubs that made local food purchasing a breeze for food services director Julie Udelhofen.

JULIE UDELHOFEN: As I saw that product come in - the freshness, the color, the flavor - it just made it all worth it.

SOLOMON: Udelhofen was always interested in farm-to-school programs, but without support, the process was just too burdensome, and she felt stuck with the typical - deliveries of highly processed food from big institutional distributors. Now that she's got a taste of the farm-fresh side of things, she does not want to go back to business as usual.

UDELHOFEN: As long as my budget looks good and I can support it, I'm going to get that food in front of the kids.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Rae Solomon reporting.

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Rae Solomon
As newscast reporter I keep Northern Coloradans up to date on all the things they need to know NOW. Whatever’s floating through the zeitgeist at the moment, I’m on it.