Hi! Today's Local Food Report is the final piece in my three-part series on Island Grown Schools. We've talked about warm, locally baked snacks, and farming and gardening in the curriculum, and that was nice. But today, we need to talk about something a little more serious: the finances of getting local food into school lunch.
The way Noli Taylor, the coordinator for Island Grown Schools, explains it, school lunch works like this:
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 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.
That's just on the Vineyard. Other schools in our area are making efforts to get local food into their cafeterias, too. Wellfleet Elementary School, for example, just put in a hoophouse last year and started an edible gardening curriculum this fall. And once a month, they open the cafeteria to me and my husband, where we cook up a local fish lunch with product donated from his company, Mac's Seafood. Truro Elementary is working with local farmer Dave Dewitt to put in an experimental bio-char garden, and the food service director there also buys from Dewitt. Gardens are popping up at other schools all over the Cape—Nauset High School is one example—and the school district in Westport buys produce from farms like Noquochoke Orchards in Westport and Quansett Gardens and Tavares Hillside Farms in Dartmouth.
Still, few places have as coordinated a program as what Island Grown Schools has going on the Vineyard. But Taylor's hoping that will change. There are ways to get local food into schools, she says, to get kids interested in growing and eating their own food, to get them to care about supporting their local farms. It's do-able, and she wants to help.