A model lunch

Davis’ Farm to School program uses partnerships to get kids eating healthy

Davis first-grader Olivia Hawley chooses between a variety of local fruits,vegetables and made-from-scratch dishes that are now offered in the school lunch line.

Davis first-grader Olivia Hawley chooses between a variety of local fruits,vegetables and made-from-scratch dishes that are now offered in the school lunch line.

Photo by Don Button

For more information on Farm to School lunch programs, go to http://davisfarmtoschool.org.

School lunch has a bad rep.

The phrase no doubt invokes memories of suspiciously gray-colored hot dogs, 2,000-calorie cinnamon rolls and nutrient-free vegetables, like ketchup, from your school days.

But people involved in the one local Farm to School program say eating like that is utterly old-school. Kids today in the Davis Joint Unified School District eat from salad bars stocked with locally grown produce and specialty salads made with ingredients like barley, asparagus and fresh herbs. They choose made-from-scratch dishes prepared in a central kitchen every morning: Picture lemony chicken served over steamed organic rice, farm-to-school pizza or fish tacos.

The program got off the ground in 1999 when two mothers—Ann Evans (co-founder of the local farmers’ market and Davis Food Co-op, and now a consultant to the Farm to School Connection) and Page O’Connor—discovered high-fat, high-salt Lunchables being served to students on a field trip.

Now, after 10 years of wobbly development, an alternative to Lunchables seems to be stable and growing. That’s thanks largely, Evans said, to a unique model that combines strong partnerships among community members, businesses like Sutter Health and the Davis Farmers Market, the school board, and local growers and distributors.

“It’s a phenomenal model,” said Janey Thornton, U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, when she visited with Farm to School organizers last month at a UC Davis reception. “I’m very impressed with the community involvement and support.”

The Davis program—one of an estimated 2,200 such programs in 44 states, according to the Center for Food & Justice—aims to get local produce incorporated into school meals. Currently, 53 percent of all produce used by the schools comes from within 300 miles. That’s up from about 20 percent a couple of years ago, said Gail Feenstra, food systems analyst with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education project and member of the Davis Farm to School Connection steering committee. The goal is to reach 60 percent by the end of 2010.

About one-third of the district’s 8,500 students eat lunch at school, either through programs that provide free or reduced-price lunches or by buying meals. The remaining two-thirds bring their lunches or eat off campus.

Farm-to-school has raised nearly a half-million dollars from the community over the years. The program is also supported by a parcel tax voted by Davis citizens in 2007, with a portion of the $70,000 a year earmarked for food programs going to school lunches.

No high-fat, high-salt lunches for Henry Siegler. Thanks to the Davis Farm to School program, the third-grader gets to choose between fresh specialty salads and farm-to-school tacos.

Photo by Don Button

The real key to the program’s sustainability, Evans said, is that the fresh produce and from-scratch meals are integrated with the USDA commodities program. Under the program, school districts pay greatly reduced prices for surplus commodities purchased by the USDA. The commodities are processed and stored until schools need them. Purists argue that food’s not good enough. But Evans, a former mayor of Davis, knows that “some change is better than no change.”

Feeding kids better is important, and it’s even more imperative with childhood obesity triple what it was in 1980. More than $147 billion went to obesity-related expenses last year, said the secretary, who previously directed school nutrition for one county’s schools in Kentucky and was former president of the 55,000-member School Nutrition Association.

The secretary spoke of the need to raise awareness, change attitudes and reform an environment where fast-food shops sit on every corner and portions are supersized—including the salad served to her recently that included four chicken breasts. Schools must be accountable for the part they play, she said.

The Davis Farm to School model doesn’t translate easily to large school districts or those in difficult climates where fresh food isn’t easily available. “They’re very fortunate the schools are of a size that you can do something,” Thornton said, commenting on the Davis program. “But think about providing fresh corn to a high school with 8,000 students? Can you imagine how long it would take just to shuck it?”

That’s a common criticism, said Feenstra, whose organization evaluates programs across the state. Still, she and others believe the relationships that sustain the Davis program today, as well as its slow, integrated approach to improving school lunches and insistence that distributors reveal where food is grown can be replicated to help improve the way children are fed in other school districts.

“We’d like to see children in other districts fed better,” Evans said. “You need to go slow, because a school district has to go slow.”