School Lunches Are Notoriously Nasty. This Program Is Changing That

The National Farm to School Network aims to bring healthy food to schools.

(Photo: USDA/Flickr)

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Oct 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Orci is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared on NPR and Slate.com and in New York Magazine and The Atlantic.

In fourth grade I transferred elementary schools and had trouble making friends— so I did what any kid would do: I started volunteering in the cafeteria. There, I figured, I would get to know the students as I asked them, “Would you like regular or chocolate milk?” While that didn't turn out the way I planned, what I did get was a surreal behind-the-scenes peek into an L.A. County elementary school cafeteria kitchen: The prepackaged foil meals would arrive frozen, then magically be heated by delightfully gruff Mrs. B., who would also bake preshaped chocolate chip cookies.

I would hand out milk and saltines; the kids would take the food, eat the tater tots and cookies, and throw away most of the rest, even—especially—the carrot coins. Why wouldn't they? I thought the carrot coins tasted like Band-Aids. Some kids would make fun of Mrs. B. and blame her for the food tasting terrible, but I knew she was doing the best she could with the budget she had. When I went off to junior high, she bought me a pack of dividers, and I cried.

Taking my memories of county lunch programs into account, the National Farm to School Network is a program nothing short of miraculous. It works with schools to expose kids to high-quality, nutritious food, with a focus on local procurement.

A good chunk of the budget also goes to creating gardens in schools, which help in the goal of educating children about good food. What does that mean? "It could be as small as having kids taste-test farm-fresh carrots," says Stacy Malstrom, communications director for the National Farm to School Network. "A child has the opportunity to taste a purple carrot, and they discover it's tasty—that's great."

The snack taste test is one of many in a set of activities a school can pick from the program. "The school lunch can look the same, but there can also be those farm-to-school activities that really make a difference," says Malstrom, who also alerted me to something regarding the lunchroom of my youth that I'd never given a second thought about—it had a kitchen."

A lot of schools don't have kitchens anymore. This happened when they took away funding for school lunch. Some cafeterias no longer have knives, so carrots can't arrive whole." Knowing this, it's easy to see why the seemingly simple task of getting fresh carrots into a school lunch program can be daunting.

The budget cuts Malstrom is referring to go back to the early 1980s, when Congress cut $1 billion from child-nutrition funding and gave the USDA 90 days to come up with a plan to "feed" kids "food." This is where the phrase "Ketchup is a vegetable" comes from, along with "Pickle relish is a vegetable." We saw a resurgence of this notion in 2011 when the tomato sauce in pizza was to be counted as a vegetable (which is puzzling, as tomatoes are fruit).

While these phrases can be followed with "Aren't they stupid to think that?," this glosses over the real issue that kids were throwing vegetables away. The USDA was scrambling to reduce "plate waste" while feeding kids some kind of nutrition. "Coming back from that is a long and arduous process," Malstrom says. "We are aiming to evolve the lunch process and also evolve children's palates." Remarkably, it's working.

The National Farm to School Network, which started off in a handful of schools in the ’90s, has exploded into all 50 states, affecting about 44 percent of all U.S. schools. Given that October is National Farm to School Month, now is a good time to raise awareness about the organization's mission to expand its program into preschools and after-school programs so snack time can mean more than powdered pudding and those weird animal cookies that taste like glue.

The focus on keeping resources local also positively affects the economy—farmers, fishers, ranchers, and food processors—while keeping the carbon footprint of school lunch low. "In Vermont now, they have local yogurt available in schools," Malstrom says. Consider for a moment how much bureaucratic ink the USDA has spilled writing about something as simple as yogurt, and go hug your local lunch worker.