School nutrition program integrates Missouri-grown foods

Tuesday, September 1, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Maria Ayala separates leaves from apples in preparation for washing in the pack house of Peters Orchards and Market near Waverly.

COLUMBIA — On a rainy day in mid-August, Peters Orchards and Market in Waverly started picking and preparing apples that will be served this fall in Columbia Public School District lunchrooms.

Outside the warehouse, the ground was damp and the air moist. Inside, it smelled of cardboard and, well, lots and lots of apples.

Slow Food event

Those interested in eating fresh foods are invited to attend a screening of "Fresh," a film celebrating people across the country who are re-inventing America's food system. Afterward there will be a panel discussion led by local food activists, an opportunity to socialize and eat as well as activities for young children.

Who: Sponsored by Slow Food Katy Trail as part of Slow Food's national campaign "Time for Lunch," a campaign to gain support for the reauthorization of the federal Child Nutrition Act.

Where: Ragtag Cinema, 10 Hitt St.

When: 4 to 7 p.m. Monday

Admission: $10 for those over age 12. Free admission for children under age 12. The movie is not included n the price of the meal. For more, go to Slow Food Katy Trail.

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"I like to think that because of the conditions we have in Missouri, such as warmer temperatures, abundant sunshine and rain, we get a flavor of apple you don't get farther north," said Paul Peters, a partner at the orchard about 80 miles west-northwest of Columbia.

This fall, the district is working toward bringing more fresh produce and Missouri-grown foods into its school nutrition program. Field and Benton elementary schools will participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, allowing the schools to serve fresh produce to students as snacks during the day.

Schools qualify if 50 percent or more of their students are enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, said Laina Fullum, director of nutrition services for Columbia Public Schools.

The program is starting with apples. Missouri isn't a major apple-producing state, Peters said. There are about four major apple growers left in the state, and Peters Orchards and Market is the largest, he said.

"We're strictly a fresh market grower," Peters said. "We don’t have the cooling to keep (apples) on a year-round basis."

Before the 2008 Farm Bill, regulations prevented participants in the National School Lunch Program from giving geographical preference for any purchases made, Fullum said. Now, though, schools can choose the regions from which their unprocessed agricultural goods can come.

For this school year, Fullum said she specified that the food distributor supply Missouri apples for the schools.

Fullum said she is meeting with vendors this fall to discuss using Missouri-grown food options and what farms they come from. "They don’t always know that, but if I keep asking, I can get answers," she said of the vendors.

The district is looking for a place where the Missouri-grown fruits and vegetables can be processed into a usable size, Fullum said. One potential location is the Columbia Area Career Center. "They have the culinary experience to do a great deal of knife cutting," she said.

Fullum said other produce to be served in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program will be carrots, turnips and jicama, which is a crisp, slightly sweet root. She added that the plan is to serve Missouri-grown fruits and vegetables with foods that can’t grow locally, such as pineapple or star fruit.

"I think that whenever you get something closer to you and it doesn’t have to travel very far, you are going to enjoy and appreciate fruits and vegetables more," Fullum said.

Each year, Fullum compiles a list of the types and quantities of foods the district will use in school lunches. The district requires them to "go out to bid" for food requests more than $10,000. Because they spend close to $2.5 million a year with their distributor, they have to allow bidding to occur, Fullum said.

The distributors submit bids for how much they will charge to provide those foods. The district then chooses the distributor with the best pricing, Fullum said, which this year was Kohl Wholesale in Quincy, Ill.

Kohl Wholesale has worked with the district for close to six years and has supplied Columbia schools with Missouri-grown apples for the past few years, said Ted Meyer, a Kohl sales manager. But this is the first year Fullum has asked for state apples.

"There is a big push nationally for more organic and locally grown produce," Meyer said.

It is difficult to find ways to use these products because of liability and sanitation issues that arise when foods are grown by independent farmers rather than large-scale growers, he said. A specific concern is whether farmers can keep their products at the right temperatures.

One of the biggest obstacles is getting the food from the farmers to the schools, Fullum said.

"Basically it's going to fall on the farmers to get a system together that will allow me to purchase from them," she said. "That's our barrier right now and that’s what we're trying to work through."

The district is working with MU Extension to discuss the challenges and opportunities of bringing Missouri farm products to schools, said Bill McKelvey, an extension program associate with the Healthy Lifestyle Initiative.

"People are at a place where they are trying to figure out how to do this and they are taking baby steps," he said.

McKelvey and Mary Hendrickson, an associate professor of rural sociology at MU and part of MU Extension, conducted a farm-to-school workshop in 2008. They invited school administrators, growers and distributors to provide those interested with the resources needed on the benefits and challenges of farm-to-school, McKelvey said. Since then, they have met with Fullum to brainstorm challenges and opportunities with bringing foods from Missouri farms to school lunches, he said.

Over time, ways of thinking have changed about the types of foods people want to eat, Hendrickson said.

"We were entranced with industrialized agriculture and thinking about how we could get out of farming as a society," she said. "Now we are seeing a reversal. People want to cook with whole foods, not with processed foods."

With serving food in schools, one big issue is seasonality: that is, what foods are in season when students are in school, Hendrickson said. 

The height of production for vegetables is in the summer, but there are foods available that go with the upcoming season. An example is pecans, which are healthy and can be used in a variety of ways, Hendrickson said.

A concern when working with farmers is whether they are going to have the facilities to prepare food to be usable by schools. Some schools don’t have proper facilities for processing foods, like snapping green beans or cutting up watermelon, she said.

The school lunch program has been disconnected from the overall education experience, Hendrickson said. Food should be integrated into the learning process, connecting it with science and cultural studies, she said. For example, when teaching kids about geography, educators could explain which types of foods are grown where and how land and climate affect that specific food.

It's important for parents to not just demand their kids be served a certain kind of food but to show an interest in understanding how the process works, Hendrickson said.

"What we pay to have our kids fed at school is ridiculously small," Hendrickson said. "Parents really need to think about that."


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