Portland Environmental group EcoTrust is taking a big step forward this year toward their goal of getting public schools to use local foods in their cafeteria lunches. The group just won a $295,000 grant that will reimburse Portland and Gervais district schools seven cents per lunch to acquire and serve local foods this year. Usually, school lunches cost $1.06 each to prepare. Let us also take a moment to contemplate how a lunch could cost only $1.06 and then, briefly, say "Ew" and decide spending more money on providing good food to kids is a smart thing to do.
"Seven cents more a meal is huge," says Nancy Bales, director of development at EcoTrust, who worked last year trying to get the Oregon legislature to pass a bill subsidizing schools state-wide the seven cents to use local foods. The bill "languished in Ways and Means" according to Bales, as no politician could find a place to scrape up the public monies. So EcoTrust went the private route and got a grant from Kaiser Permanente to start the program just in Portland and Gervis schools.
If it works well in Portland, local foods advocates would have more hard data to sell politicians on the idea of ponying up funds for the whole state. It seems like schools are into the idea of using more local foods - as long as they don't have to foot the bill. An Oregon Dept of Education survey last year showed that nearly a third of Oregon public schools use some local foods and 36 percent of those that don't cited cost as their biggest concern.
The plan is to use the money to incorporate a different local, seasonal food into as many school cafeteria meals as possible. September is the month of cucumbers, October is corn on the cob, November is parsnips, then cabbage, potatoes, pears, berries, radishes and asparagus.
I'm totally into local foods and I think it's a smart idea to try and get big buyers like schools (and prisons, too, would be good) to support local farmers with their dollars rather than buying highly-processed foods trucked from far away. But I don't know if school kids are going to be as excited about Parsnip Month as I am about the economics behind it.
Parsnips: An ugly root vegetable near you!
Bales predicted these fears. Part of the $140,000 in the grant that's not going to reimburse schools for buying the foods will be used for education. "This food's not just going to show up on their plate, there's corresponding information that's going to go home with the kids," said Bales.
To figure out whether the Portland local foods program is working, part of the grant goes toward a "rigorous evaluation" of the program. This could involve more surveys, but also a "plate analysis- someone's job is watching kids eat school lunch and meticulously recording what they throw away. Hopefully it'll be the beef ole rather than the asparagus.