They didn’t put on chef’s hats, but as the children of Cordley School gathered for lunch Friday, they ate a meal of their own making.
The 316 students wolfed down heaps of lasagna made with noodles they mixed and eggs they gathered, ate salad produced by farmers they met and gobbled up an oatmeal crisp made with strawberries they plucked themselves from the fields. The meal, far from the norm of chicken nuggets and chocolate milk, was the culmination of a week of food education called Farm-to-School.
The program, meant to connect children with local food producers in an effort to teach kids about real, unprocessed food, is the first of its kind in Lawrence, and judging by the reaction of both the children and policymakers in attendance, its first special lunch was a success.
“I ate most of it,” says third-grader Malayasia Hill, who gave the meal a thumbs-up. “I ate salad, breadsticks, lasagna, broccoli.”
That’s how Farm-to-School organizer Linda Cottin hopes children in Lawrence will be eating every day. She wants the program, which she plans to bring to other schools next school year, to introduce children and educators to the idea of eating locally grown, wholesome food during the school day.
“Our school district is so ready for this. The kitchen staff was so excited to be cooking real food. They had everything they needed to do their job; the only thing they didn’t have was local food,” Cottin says. “They definitely had the capacity, the technology and the skill to handle local food. They did make a lot from scratch already; it’s just that the scratch they’re using is imported.”
After the lunch, 35 adults took part in a roundtable discussion about the feasibility of bringing local food into Kansas schools, whether as a special education meal such as Farm-to-School or on a more permanent basis. Among those in attendance were parents, farmers, real food advocates, a county commissioner, state senator and members of the child nutrition and wellness sector of the Kansas Department of Education.
The consensus? It is necessary to do more, though it may not be possible to do as much as advocates would like, says Jodi Mackey, director of child nutrition and wellness for the state Department of Education. The restrictions? Money and inconsistencies in each area’s local food system.
“The biggest challenge besides the close availability of crops and products at the right time is cost. Because the funds that are available for school meals are so limited and they have very specific requirements that they have to meet every day,” Mackey says. “There’s a lot of talk about increasing funding for school meals, but the current legislation that’s out there wouldn’t really increase the funding very much.”
A solution Mackey sees as accessible to every school in the state that would provide more local food to students is the implementation of more gardens like the one at West Junior High in Lawrence. While it may not mean meals produced from 100 percent local ingredients, Mackey believes gardens to be a baby step toward more meals in the ballpark of the Farm-to-School program.
“I love the idea of the school gardens, because there’s absolutely no reason the school food service program can’t take the produce that’s grown in the garden and use it in the school meals,” Mackey says. “Which is just a win-win for everybody. It’s one good way to begin to get food into schools that’s locally grown and that kids are excited to eat, because if they grew it, they’ll eat it.”