It is our responsibility today to ensure the health and well-being of future generations tomorrow. By improving the quality of school meals (and making them more accessible to all children), we are not only helping students have a better today – we are helping them have a healthier tomorrow.
Nationwide, more than 54 million American children are enrolled in kindergarten through high school and approximately 31 million of those students participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) each school day. The program operates in more than 100,000 schools and, since the program’s inception, more than 224 billion lunches have been served. Meanwhile, the number of children who bring lunch from home continues to decline annually.
And new challenges continue to arise. Food service and energy costs continue to increase, while many state and federal budgets decrease. There is the daily issue of outside influences – fast food options, financial pressures caused by tight budgets and decreased tax revenues. These issues can stand in the way of a school’s ability to provide healthy, delicious meals to students. Just like school food services, today’s farmer also faces numerous challenges in making his or her living off the land to provide products that work for the supply and demand of the school’s needs.
Farm to school (F2S) programs help bridge gaps to overcome many of these issues, ensuring students have the freshest, highest-quality foods available, from a farm that might only be a few miles up the road, or across the state, as opposed to product coming from the other side of the country. F2S programs not only deliver food that nourishes children’s bodies, but provides the foundation and knowledge that can enhance students’ educational experiences while cultivating long-term healthier eating habits. In this respect, F2S is a win-win for students, nutrition directors, farmers, communities, educators, parents and the environment.
The term “food quality” is used to describe the quality characteristics of food that is considered acceptable to the end user. These characteristics include: External factors, such as appearance (size, shape, color, gloss, and consistency), texture, and flavor; internal factors, which can be chemical, physical or microbial; and factors such as federal grade standards.
In the U.S., food quality is enforced under the Food Quality Protection Act and is an important regulatory requirement. In regard to fresh produce, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) developed “U.S. Grade Standards” specifically for fruits and vegetables, which describe measurable “quality” and “condition” characteristics for fresh produce, and help provide a fair trade market for all produce grown in the U.S.
These standards provide product specification in terms of what produce should be accepted or rejected, based on quality or condition defects. Quality defects can relate to the product’s shape, texture, and skin “scarring,” discoloration or growth cracks. Condition defects may include bruising, sunken discolored areas, shriveling, surface discoloration and decay. These standards are updated periodically due to industry requests, and can often impact cost for the product.
It is important for a school nutrition program to have these standards in place for consideration when purchasing produce from a farmer. Staff may need to be trained in what to look for and how to determine the best quality of the products within the cost parameters.
But quality goes above and beyond product characteristics and standards. In a recent study of F2S programs from the perspective of school food service professionals, the major themes related to why schools participate in such programs are: Because students like it, the price is right and the school helps local farmers.
Program implementation was successful in these schools because they were offering children healthier choices while providing them the freshest, highest quality, nutritious food. The result is that students eat more fruits and vegetables sourced from the farmer. Why? Because of an increased quality of freshness (finding that locally sourced products have that “picked yesterday” sentiment) and flavor (with larger variety of products available through farmers and wholesalers).
Consider larger distributors: They typically carry limited varieties of product, such as apples, due to their need to quickly turn over their products. Therefore, only those particular apple varieties with high enough demand are regularly stocked. Other distributors may carry additional varieties, but those may be too expensive for school budgets. Farmers and wholesalers, on the other hand, can offer a wide variety of apples at a price that works. Thanks to shortened supply chains and relationships with farmers, schools are finding ways to work with their budgets to offer more variety and products that are fresher, tastier and more appealing to students in general.
By providing the highest quality of products to students, F2S programs illustrate the efforts to balance child nutrition and financial goals with their desire to support the local community. Not only does supporting locally grown food “feel good,” but it offers access to fresher and higher quality food, generates good public relations for the school system and allows schools to purchase smaller quantities of product, as needed.
Wisdom from Others:
Buying Local – Approved Sources for Food Establishments – This guide provides information on providing safe locally produced products such as produce, meat and eggs to food establishments, from Michigan Department of Agriculture.
Farm to School Programs: Perspectives of School Food Service Professionals – Read this article to learn more about the results of a study conducted in 2010, which was aimed at garnering direct feedback from food service staff on how implementation of F2S was working in their school systems, from the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Fresh Produce Handling Tips for Schools – Tips about buying, storing and preparing fresh produce in a school environment, from the USDA adapted from the Oklahoma F2S program.
NSLP Fact Sheet – Review the USDA Food and Nutrition Service fact sheet to learn more about the National School Lunch Program, including reimbursement amounts and other requirements for the program, with useful links to learn more about the program in each state.
Produce Safety Resources – Review these fact sheets on produce safety that describe best practices for receiving, storing, handling and purchasing fresh and fresh-cut produce through videos, fact sheets, and PowerPoint presentations from the National Food Service Management Institute.
Produce Safety University – Presentations with a farm-to-plate approach include script outlines to help educate and train school foodservice personnel on the safe handling of fresh products, with webinars, videos, product information sheets and other interactive tools designed by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
Raw Produce: Selecting and Serving it Safely – Best practices for the buying, storing and preparing of fresh produce, including a video tutorial, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
National Farm to School Network. “Nourishing the Nation One Tray at a Time: Farm to School Initiatives in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization.” Retrieved Dec. 2013 from http://www.farmtoschool.org/files/publications_192.pdf
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Food Quality Protection Act of 1996.” Retrieved March 2014, from https://www.congress.gov/104/plaws/publ170/PLAW-104publ170.pdf
Whole Grains Council, “School Meals in America.” Retrieved Dec. 2013, from http://wholegrainscouncil.org/resources/school-meals-in-america.