Farm-to-Table — Lunchroom Table, that is

January 11, 2008

Did anyone see this Seattle P-I piece about feeding schoolkids local food? (You also can find it on The Ethicurean.) Next week, legislation will be proposed in our state capital that enables Washington school districts to purchase food from local farmers, as opposed to accepting the lowest bid from large-scale, out-of-state factory farms.

Hooray for farmers, hooray for schools, right? Not according to those who left comments on the paper’s website.

A sampler:

Just what we need. Another bureaucracy to counteract the nonsense of an existing federal bureaucracy. And another farm subsidy thrown in.

Our schools constantly tell us that they need more money now they are looking for a way to get around the competitive pricing system that helps to insure cost containment in our schools. The lunchs [sic] are already required to meet certain nutritional values. This seems like just another feel good way to get into our pockets without addressing the larger issues that concern our education system.

And, my personal favorite:

What a joke! More socialism.

Plenty has been written about the state of the school cafeteria. We all know what grease and catscraps lurk within those heated and reheated metal serving trays. But how much leeway do school cooks have? They’ve got thousands of mouths to feed. They’ve got truckloads of government-subsidized, over-processed foods either to serve or to toss. And they’ve only got until 11:17 a.m. each day to prepare a meal that conforms to USDA calorie and/or nutrition mandates. No wonder most of our nation’s kids eat rectangle pizza every day.

In September 2006, the New Yorker published a piece on Ann Cooper, a school chef who endeavored to revolutionize the Berkeley, Cali., lunch program (you can read an abstract of the article here). She started out serving a whole slew of tasty treats, including blue cheese and walnut pizza on a whole wheat crust and fresh coleslaw with a cranberry-apple vinaigrette. The students flipped. They wanted “real” pizza: the kind with watery red sauce and sticky cheese poured over a scrap of half-baked dough. After a long struggle, Cooper pulled the gourmet pies. She had her chefs blend as many veggies into the sauce as was possible, topped it with some low-cal mozzarella, and that was that. School lunch pizza, dialed up a single notch.

When she told her funder, Original Foodie Alice Waters, about her cafeteria catastrophes, Waters flipped, too. She wanted slow foods in the school system. Whole foods. But Cooper couldn’t deliver. Not with USDA regulations to meet. Not with 4,000 students clamoring for corndogs.

So back to my homestate. Given that Cooper and her crew operated in Central California, a.k.a., the land of plenty, and they were experiencing difficulty doing the locavore thing, how reasonable is it to think that a program like this could function in Washington? As I mentioned in an earlier post, our agri-bounty dwindles in winter. We get a whole lotta storables: squash, potatoes, apples, cabbage. Certainly, we still have meat and dairy, but a school lunch of cheesy beef ‘n’ tater casserole won’t fly five days a week, per student tastes, the USDA, and common sense. What’s more, if Cooper’s trial is any teacher, you bet your buttons that Joe Schoolkid isn’t going to fly out of his knickers over mashed butternut squash with caramelized apples and a fresh salmon ragout.

I’m of two minds.

Mind One: Buy local! Eat seasonally! Sustain the farmers and the land! How communal.

Mind Two: Lunch ladies have neither the time, nor the support, to spend hours in the kitch, crafting sumptuous savories to feed the children.

Sure, I’ll likely vote to approve this bill when it shows up on my ballot; supporting local farmers who steward the land I call home is important. But I’ll vote with a wary hand. Just as Berkeley’s 1999, pre-Cooper go-round with lunch reform tanked when the grant money ran out, so too could this bill dive into the dark pool of “Hey, at least we tried!” legislation, leaving our kids in the lurch — without a lunch.

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7 Responses to “Farm-to-Table — Lunchroom Table, that is”

  1. Leslie said

    The Oregonian 1-8-08 article by Leslie Cole about a similar program in Oregon schools–a chef is trying to bring Oregon food to Oregon students–novel idea, huh? Food for thought, as it were.

  2. It’s good to hear that this “novel idea” might be catching on. I’ll have to check out The Oregonian online. Thanks for the heads up!

  3. Justin said

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand the bill, it doesn’t REQUIRE that school lunchrooms purchase foods from local outlets, but it allows them to privilege local producers over lower priced national conglomerates.

    Having worked for a government, I know first hand that government entities are usually required by law to accept the lowest bid. When it comes to food service, there’s no way a local dairy producer can make a lower bid than Lucerne or some other mega-producer.

    I feel like this bill is really meant to give school lunchrooms some leeway to buy–when possible–from local producers. They are obviously going to have to supplement with food that’s been trucked thousands of miles to maintain the diversity and simplicity that school children desire. But at least they are no longer beholden to accept the lowest bid.

    Which brings me to another point: I’m not comfortable with the Alice Waters et al local-food-must-be-gourmet approach. Chez Panisse and the “locavore” food movement has made us all believe that local has to be expensive. Let’s separate gourmet from local. We don’t have to make gorgonzola walnut pizza for the kids. Let’s make pizza rectangles with local tomatoes and cheddar cheese.

  4. Justin: Good points. You’re right; the bill doesn’t require schools to buy locally. It simply gives them the ability to do so. Certainly, they will likely keep buying from biggie producers, simply by virtue of those producers’ ability to meet the schools’ high-volume demands. Hopefully, however, smaller local farms will be able to create conglomerates that can offer competitive bids.

    I think you are on the right track with your questioning of the “local-food-must-be-gourmet” frame of mind. Sure, local eats don’t have to be gastronome-worthy; but I think this correlation stems from the fact that both local eating and haute cuisine have thoughtfulness in common. Just as a cook has to put great thought into his or her delicacies, so too does the locavore have to consider his or her environment before choosing what goes on the dinner table.

  5. ccaurant said

    Dear Living Small,

    You and your readers might be interested in this opportunity to let candidates for Congress know that local food in school is important to you:

    On Wednesday, September 10th, Friends of Family Farmers, OSALT, Oregon Tilth, Slow Food Portland and People’s Coop will host a forum on local food and farm issues with candidates for Oregon’s 5th Congressional District–and as a supporter of the Portland Farmers Market, we’d love for you to attend!

    The Local Food & Farms Forum will provide an opportunity for the public to ask questions of the candidates on topics pertaining to food and agriculture. All candidates officially on the ballot for the 5th Congressional District (north Willamette Valley) will be there. Come join us and make your voice heard!

    This event will be held September 10th in Canby at the Canby Adult Center (1250 S. Ivy) from 6:00 to 8:30pm. A “Meet the Candidates” Mixer with candidates for Oregon legislature will be held prior to the forum from 6-7pm.

  6. Thanks for the info; hopefully Oregon readers will turn out in Canby for this event. Good luck!

  7. […] Heron want lawmakers to build the program from the ground up, almost literally — they want to see farm-to-lunchroom-table practices put in place, round and healthy meals prepared for our nation’s youth, as Ann Cooper enacted […]

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