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.
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.