By Doug Davis, SNS 2014-05-01 20:30:50
Do we have enough green acres to support our best hopes and intentions over the long haul? More than a year has passed since most school nutrition operations began changing their menu mixes as part of the process of implementing new federal nutrition standards for lunch (and, more recently, for breakfast, and imminently for a la carte offerings). One of the most significant changes (and challenges) faced by many school sites is the requirement to increase the amounts of certain meal components, notably fruits, vegetables and whole grains. As we know, the new meal patterns for school meals are the first update in more than a decade—and they were developed to respond to very legitimate concerns about child health. Over the years, we have seen childhood obesity rates rise. While all studies show that children who consume reimbursable school breakfast and lunch every day are at a less risk than those that don’t, we are still waging an uphill battle to gain attention and acceptance by kids about making healthy choices at school—and out of school. No one can argue with the intent of the new federal nutrition standards: Emphasize nutritious choices as a means to turn around current childhood obesity trends and educate students on developing a lifelong commitment to wellness. In fact, in my opinion, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and new meal patterns are great things for our kids. In particular, my favorite part of the law is the enhanced access students have to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. This goes a long way to help introduce students, especially children from low-income families, to foods they likely would never see at home. If we are to have a real impact on the obesity trend and the subsequent lifelong healthcare implications—and cost—then we need to change the way our students view fruits and vegetables. We have to find opportunities through our school nutrition programs to expose kids to new produce items and help them understand why corn-on-the-cob is not always in season—and why that doesn’t mean that the always-available processed corn chip should be considered an alternative. Many students and their families simply do not have the resources or access to obtain produce near home. But this creates an amazing opportunity for schools to do what schools do best: educate. Still, the new nutrition requirements can’t be applauded in a vacuum. The increased amounts of required food have presented school nutrition professionals with a number of immediate operational challenges (including prep labor, food cost, customer appeal and waste)—as well as some little-discussed concerns that I fear may be coming down the road very soon. For this issue’s focus on the “Future of Food,” School Nutrition asked me to reflect more on some thoughts I had offered as a participant in the magazine’s 8th annual Roundtable of Leaders [Editors’ Note: See “Leading in Challenging Times, October 2012]. Essentially, if we are to ask our schools to mandate that produce be taken with each lunch and breakfast, and in larger quantities, I wonder what, if any, impact that might have on our nation’s farms and orchards? There are upward of 43 million school breakfasts and lunches served every day across the country. The federal Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) has expanded nationally, providing eligible schools with a fantastic opportunity to provide students with a wide variety of fruit choices. An increasing number of school districts, like mine in Burlington, Vt., are now offering supper meals (another program recently expanded nationally) in ever-greater numbers. Is there an agriculture capacity crisis looming? Growing Pains This is not an idle concern, especially when we consider the “normal” challenges faced by growers in any given year. Crops fail. It rains too much or too little. Pests or blights affect yields. These are agricultural givens—but it seems like they may be getting a little worse, or at least more unpredictable, in recent years. Winters seem to spread frost further and further south and for longer periods of time—especially this last one! Ongoing droughts in California, Texas and throughout the Midwest already have impacted the production of both fresh fruits and fruits for canning, while forcing the prices of vegetables into dramatic swings. Just last year, we saw apple prices spike to nearly double their previous year’s pricing as a result of bad weather that stretched from Michigan to the Northeast. To look at the potential impact a capacity crisis might have on the school meal program, let’s use apples as an example. If all children participating in the school lunch and breakfast program were offered an apple as a fruit choice at breakfast and lunch on the same day, it would take about 357,000 cases of 140-count apples to meet the volume. In speaking with a local orchardist here in Vermont, I was told that this is doable and the volume could be maintained, even though a review of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on “bearing acreage” for apples shows a 20% decline since 2000. This is because while the acreage used for growing apples has declined, the number of trees per acre has increased dramatically. But even if the volume can be maintained, there’s another factor to consider, especially when production is compromised: pricing. Can apples remain affordable to our schools? In New England, we take tremendous pride in our land, our farmers and our food. But we still rely on other parts of the country to supply certain fresh products for much of the school year. And while schools are required by regulation to buy American-produced items for the child nutrition programs, there are some items and certain times of the year that make either the availability or the cost—or both—very difficult for schools to afford. Let’s also remember that one of our goals is to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables by students outside of school. There’s the possibility that in smaller markets prioritizing locally sourced produce for schools, the demand required by those schools could mean an insufficient supply available at the local retail market level. Our good work toward nutrition education is undercut if families can’t find or afford items that students have grown to enjoy in school. There are other implications about agriculture capacity to consider. Can we keep up with an increased demand for newly popular items, like sweet potatoes? Can our agriculture producers provide sufficient supply of items with high expectations or certain specifications for appearance and size? Will we start seeing hoarding of certain popular items by larger school districts with greater storage capacity, putting a greater burden on their smaller counterparts? Planting Questions Why is it important that school nutrition professionals like you and me reflect on this issue of agriculture capacity and start asking questions? Because a solution is likely going to require some long-term thinking about agriculture policy, which goes hand in hand with child nutrition policy. So, here we are, back where we started: The sustainability of the meal pattern requirements can’t be thought about in a vacuum. As advocates for school nutrition programs, providing comments to USDA and meeting with our national lawmakers, we have focused our efforts on addressing many valid concerns regarding the meal patterns, including food waste, palatability, kid acceptability, divergent home meal patterns, equipment limitations and labor costs. But simple, basic capacity is one area that has not received much attention. I believe it should be on our radar screen as we move toward the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization and work with our allies on future agriculture-related policy, including the next Farm Bill. Will produce supply and demand issues become another burden on schools already on the verge of dropping out of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs? If so, then how will this serve our twin missions to feed hungry children and teach lifelong nutrition habits to promote health and combat obesity? I don’t have the answers. But I want to raise the questions and be sure this issue is a part of future conversations. Doug Davis is director, Burlington School Food Project, Burlington (Vt.) School District. Photography by Michele Piacquadio and Maciej Maksymowicz/Jiunlimited.com.
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