Out of the Closet:
School Lunch Programs Step into the Light
by Rosie DeQuattro
When I was a kid, I brought my lunch to school in a lunch box. Later, I waited in line with the rest of the high school for the opportunity to plunk down 35 cents to buy Sloppy Joes, or something called American chop suey—which was neither American nor “Asian”—or, on Fish Fridays, tuna-noodle casserole with a side of canned string beans or gray peas. I confess, having never been a finicky eater, I liked everything.
Fast forward to 2009 and school lunch is now the new “school choice” with students faced with the decision to eat at the snack bar or the salad bar; take the vegetarian option or the sub station; snack from the vending machine or, for about $2.75 (a national average), go for the whole enchilada (so to speak). And with growing concerns like childhood
obesity, pressure has been mounting on governments, parents and the school food-service community to provide healthier, fresher foods in our cafeterias. Everyone from AliceWaters and the USDA to the school lunch lady is on the bandwagon. No longer the butt of jokes, school lunch programs are out of the closet and finally receiving the respect they deserve.
Part of the credit for the transition to healthier school lunches goes to the Massachusetts Farm-to-School Project. In 2002, newly laid off from her job with the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture after Romney took office, Kelly Erwin had just started discussing the farmto- school idea with colleagues. She had been a tireless advocate for the
farm-to-consumer connection for 15 years. But Erwin was increasingly dissatisfied with affecting the food choices of only individuals. What she really wanted to do was facilitate large-scale change by targeting kids where they were everyday: in school.
The Farm-to-School Project started almost five years ago to help willing schools and motivated farmers find each other. Erwin discovered early on that it wasn’t a quick sell—both farmers and schools needed convincing. To make it happen she would have to make the kind of systems change required to get those schools to actually be able to buy from farmers. “It’s a much harder project; it’s a great puzzle,” she says.
Erwin’s idea was that, rather than order food from large distributors and pay prices padded with middle-men and large transportation overhead costs, schools should be able to order their food directly from a local farmer and still stay within budget. She had set herself a formidable task.
On one side of the equation were the farmers, who needed convincing that school lunch contracts could be profitable and reliable; and on the other side were the schools entrenched in thinking that buying locally was too expensive an option for a public school lunch budget. So she conducted intensive outreach to local farms, attended farmers’ meetings and made presentations, all in an effort to educate the farmers and food service personnel.
Erwin remembers, “The first two years I was beating the bushes trying to find any farms. I had some schools that were interested but the farms resisted, reluctant to forgo profits.”
In order to make a living inMassachusetts and protect their farms from development, farmers need to maximize profits—which traditionally meant selling direct to consumers (DTC) rather than, say, trucking their products into the Boston wholesale market. Traditionally, DTC options had been “pick-your-own,” CSAs or farmers markets.
Finally she found two farms that were willing to test out her theory, Lanni Orchards in Lunenburg and Czajkowski Farm in Hadley. Since these two farms already had trucks doing established delivery routes (to Stop and Shop, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s), they would be easy to match with a school district. Erwin found out where the trucks were already going and found a willing school. Once the farmer and school developed a contractual relationship, the farmer realized there was indeed a profit to be made. It was a win-win.
Today in Massachusetts, 50 local farms sell their products directly to schools. Over 85 public school districts, 15 colleges and 12 private schools purchase and serve locally grown foods in their cafeterias. Erwin says, “90 percent of the public schools I deal with tell me that the price they get from the farmer is either the same price they would get from a distributor, or less.”
Lanni Orchards has been selling directly to schools for three years and plans to continue. They deliver produce to about 30 schools, yearround, including Brookline, Rockport andWorcester. Together with a few other local farms, Lanni regularly delivers produce like apples, squash, turnips, tomatoes, kale and lettuce. Office manager and family
member Lisa Lanni confirms that, “It’s profitable.”
If a school can’t make the minimum order, they sometimes partner with other area schools and farmers will offer a discount to schools that can manage with just one central delivery point. At some schools, like the Somerville Public Schools, Lanni’s truck will stop at multiple locations. Mary Joan McLarney, food service director for Somerville
Public Schools, says that working with a local farmer has facilitated and improved the distribution and ordering systems. Now in their fourth year of buying from local farmers, the Somerville Public Schools each year have doubled their volume of purchases from Lanni Orchards. The school system serves 3,700 lunches a day and 1,700 breakfasts.
McLarney says, “It works well and gets better every year. Local farmers charge a very competitive price as compared to produce distributors with high transportation costs.” And she adds, “For the first time last year, purchasing from Lanni was lower than purchasing from a big distributor.”
Bob Kinch is food service director for theMaynard Public Schools and its 1,300 students in grades K–12. His was the first school in North Middlesex County to participate in the Farm-to-School Project. He continues to get delivery from a local farm once a week. Kinch is thrilled with the quality of the food he serves in his cafeterias, and with the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of his diverse student population. “They’re eating things that some didn’t even know what they were—like squash and cauliflower. I’m serving food that is fresher tastier and I’m happy.”
And at Harvard Public Schools, the food service director is the school’s hero. Paul Correnty—“Chef,” as the kids call him—says that parents thank him for keeping their kids healthy. High school students give him high-fives and hug the lunch ladies. “Lunchtime here is pandemonium. For some of these kids this is their best meal. A lot of parents don’t even cook anymore.”
Correnty shops at farmers markets, or at Applefield Farm in Stow or Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell. “We offer choices,” he says: salads, beets, Delicata squash. “Kids know the difference.” He’s quick to pass the credit for the popularity of his lunch program on to his staff of dedicated lunch ladies. Correnty says that although they are the lowest paid part of a school system they have the biggest impact because they see all the kids every day. Last year, the kids dedicated the yearbook to him. It reads: “Thanks to you and the ladies we don’t know what real school food tastes like.”
Kelly Erwin is hopeful that her farm-to-school project will continue to grow. She recognizes that there are problems to be resolved, like the incursion of huge management companies into the public school market, or the occasional unscrupulous distributor lurking about the system.
“Eventually I’m hoping that there will be so many schools and colleges that are buying local and have been so for a while that they will support each other in it and you won’t really need an extra program.” Seems that she’s determined to put herself out of a job, again.
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance food writer who lives in Acton. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.