A school food revolution is happening in Sacramento, in California and across the nation.
It's about getting delicious, fresh, local and healthy food into the cafeterias. It's about setting up school gardens as a learning tool and creating knowledge about the food we grow. It's about getting junk food and sodas out of schools. It's about changing how kids – and teachers, administrators and communities – view the importance and value of food during the school day. It's about learning how to cook and prepare food again. It's about changing policies to facilitate rather than inhibit innovative and potentially far-reaching healthy food programs. It's about the transformation of school food.
In the Sacramento area, some of the earliest initiatives to transform school food took place in the Davis school district under the direction of Rafaelita Curva, director of student nutrition services. Davis boasts a 10-year-old booster club for all things school lunch – from providing noted cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan as a cooking school instructor for the school lunch professionals to support for ongoing evaluation of the district's successful efforts to buy locally and serve more fruits and vegetables.
UC Davis found in 2009-10 that the Davis district purchased 49 percent of its produce within a 300-mile radius, benefiting more than 60 local farmers. The community was the first in the nation to provide direct funding through a parcel tax for an increase in the purchase and preparation of more local produce for school lunch.
More recent initiatives have been the Winters and Sacramento school districts' projects to expand student access to local, seasonal fresh produce. In Winters, working under the direction of food service director Cathleen Olsen, a former restaurateur, the district is expanding its school gardens and increasing procurement of regional produce by up to 25 percent by purchasing from up to 10 farmers.
In Sacramento, efforts are under way through the community and mayor's office to support farm-to-school programs. Six Sacramento County strawberry farmers have teamed up with Sacramento City Unified School District nutrition services in providing the freshest and juiciest strawberries to students – a tasty beginning for such an initiative. All of this translates into more kids eating more meals at these school districts that create a shift in their diets.
A study of the Davis program by University of California researchers found that those farm-to-school programs increased the fruits and vegetables students put on their plates to 120 percent of the USDA guidelines. If given a choice of fresh fruits and vegetables, children will eat them.
Transforming school food is not just about innovative programs such as those at Davis or Winters and Sacramento; it also requires a policy framework that helps rather than hinders innovation. Along those lines, Congress recently passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the $4.5 billion Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act 2010.
The legislation reduces the administrative burden on schools by authorizing an automatic enrollment of kids eligible for free lunch, further eliminates junk food in schools, provides schools an additional reimbursement of 6 cents to create a healthier school meal, reorients pricing policies so reimbursements for low-income students no longer subsidize the price of school meals for wealthier students, and provides grant funds for starting farm-to-school programs.
In California, promoting and helping expand farm-to-school has been the focus of the California Farm to School Task Force, an informal collaborative consisting of representatives from the grass-roots school food advocate organizations, farmer groups, school food services, and representatives from state and federal agencies. The task force has provided a critical meeting ground between the different players who see farm-to-school as a core opportunity for transforming the school food environment.
Today farm-to-school programs and their related school gardens, cooking and waste reduction programs, and cafeteria food innovations are beginning to change the way kids experience and get to know food. This crucial lesson – getting to know the food by eating food that is fresh and full of flavor when it comes straight from the farm is taking place in thousands of school districts across the country and is now operational in all 50 states.
As school districts begin to explore and engage in such programs, they are learning that the effort to transform school food can be simple, compelling and far-reaching. They ensure that the lunch plate offers an education about where food comes from and its importance in our lives, including at school.
Robert Gottlieb is the co-author with Anupama Joshi of “Food Justice” and is the director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. Ann M. Evans, former mayor of Davis, is a consultant on improving school food in California.