School Lunch Finances Pose Challenge to Eating Healthy

Jan 31, 2014

Most schools across the country have contracts to get their meals from corporate food service providers. These providers are big, often multi-national companies that provide meals to schools, hospitals, and prisons.

They buy huge amounts of food from big, industrial farms at very low prices, making lunch inexpensive for the schools and profitable for the companies. Some schools have exclusive contracts, meaning they can only buy their food from the companies, and others have looser arrangements. Either way, school food budgets are based on these sorts of deals, which means there's very little money available for lunch.

 Clearly, this is a national issue that needs attention. And as you probably know, it's getting it—through programs like Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard and First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. But in the meantime, people like Noli Taylor and organizations like Island Grown Initiative (or IGI, the Martha's Vineyard non-profit that works to increase supply and demand for locally grown food on the island and is behind Island Grown Schools) are working to get healthy, local food into school lunches whether there's funding or not.

Usually, there's not. But that hasn't stopped Taylor. She's set up meetings on the Vineyard between local farmers and food service directors so that they can talk about price and try to find places where island produce is affordable. It sounds far-fetched, but it turned out veggies like greens are actually cheaper on-island. And in the fall, when the tourists left and schools opened up, farmers were awash in extra produce and were willing to drop their prices for the school.

The most successful program, though, has been the Martha's Vineyard Gleaners. The term gleaning comes out of the industrial revolution, when farmers opened their fields after the harvest to the poor to come and glean whatever produce was left unharvested. Each fall now on the island, farms open their fields to community volunteers and students to collect food that wouldn't otherwise be harvested. Last fall, the gleaners collected over 6,000 pounds of local produce for school cafeterias on the island. Not only was this a lot of produce, but since it was free, there was more money in the budget to spend on other local food that might otherwise have been too expensive.

This is an excerpt from this week's Local Food Report.  The essay is posted as audio below - give it a listen.

You can find out more at Elspeth's blog, Diary of a Locavore.