Manhattan Even preschoolers at Plaza Del Niños, a Head Start program at Penn Valley Community College, have learned that eating more fruits and vegetables is good for them.
But are the apples the food service director buys from a local farmer grown with approved fertilizers and herbicides?
Or properly cooled after picking?
Or chopped on a cutting board used for fruits and vegetables only, and not raw chicken?
A push to get fresh, locally grown foods into school lunch programs is progress for a nation in desperate need of better nutrition, but federal officials insist that when you're feeding 31 million children a day through the National School Lunch Program, you really can't be too careful.
To make sure school lunches are as safe as possible, researchers at Kansas State University have been tapped to create the U.S. Department of Agriculture's only Center of Excellence for Food Safety Research.
The goal of the center is to take a "holistic" approach to the handling of produce from farm to cafeteria lunch tray. The center will have a staff of four researchers, though not a physical building.
The research is funded by a two-year, $1.6 million grant, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who announced the center on Thursday.
K-State received the prestigious nod in part because of its land-grant tradition and its leading role in shaping the nation's agricultural landscape. But the university also is considered a leader in related areas, including food service, hospitality management and dietetics.
The research team "had the vision and could look down the road at the questions that would enable school meal and child care programs to make sure meals are of the highest standard of safety," said Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
Although it's fairly rare, when an outbreak of food-borne illness requires a recall of spinach, peanut butter or hamburger meat, the story hits the headlines and goes viral.
"More schools, happily, are buying locally, and we encourage that . but we want to be paying attention to food safety matters," Concannon said in a phone interview with The Star. "There needs to be a system in place. Food safety doesn't work on an ad hoc basis."
Kevin Roberts, an associate professor in the Department of Hospitality Management and Dietetics, will be the director of the new center.
"Kansas State has a background in food safety and experience across the food chain," he said.
And, in the case of an outbreak of food-borne illness, "our role would be to provide the science-based data."
The school lunch program was created under President Harry S. Truman after many young men were deemed unfit to serve as soldiers in World War II because of nutrition deficiencies. The program also provided farmers a steady market for selling their commodities.
One new directive of the recently released dietary guidelines is to eat more plant foods, so the USDA has new initiatives, such as farm-to-school purchasing and school gardens. The agency also has stepped up weeklong workshops focusing on safe handling of fresh produce by school nutrition directors.
Last fall, the preschoolers at Plaza Del Niños spent afternoon snack time enjoying fresh-picked local peaches and churned vanilla ice cream made with local cream when Concannon made a stop in Kansas City to visit farm-to-school programs.
Concannon sat on tiny chairs and watched a girl with a sticky chin move between her peach and her ice cream.
"That looks like really good ice cream," he said.
The girl wanted to know if she could have more.
Concannnon smartly called for the preschool teacher, who coaxed the child to eat more peaches.
"It's almost like getting back to our roots (by) tying the farm to our schools," said Mary Frances Nettles of the National Food Service Management Institute in Hattiesburg, Miss.
The institute provides the training and materials for food service directors across the country, and Nettles — who earned her graduate degrees from K-State — looks forward to working with her alma mater.
"This can't be ivory-tower-type research," Nettles said. "It's got to reach down to the schools and child-care centers so parents can be assured the food is nutritious and safe.
"Yes, we want to buy locally, but any product you buy anywhere, you need to know what happened to it before it got to your back door."
.The National School Lunch Program serves more than 31 million children daily in 101,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions.
.The Child and Adult Care Food Program serves about 3.2 million children and 112,000 adults daily.