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We all know Jamie Olivers in the making. A parent, a teacher, a student. Someone who’s making noise. School-food reform is big news these days, the stuff of TV shows, government campaigns and blog crusades. And even before all the hoopla, plenty of parents and others were working below the radar to get better food in their kids’ schools.

But what about making that food sustainable, chemical-free and ethical? That? That is a whole other ballgame.

Most school-food changes are motivated by the crisis proportions of childhood obesity and diabetes. Important? Of course. But if we’re going to raise a nation of thinking eaters — indeed, a nation of truly healthy kids — schools need to move beyond calorie count and replacing white bread with wheat. They need to ask hard questions about how they source their food and what’s in it.

We’re not there yet. Far from it. Too many schools are still striving for even the most basic changes. (And sometimes meeting resistance along the way.) But there’s been steady growth in school gardens and farm-to-school programs, often the first steps toward making the food sustainable as well as healthful.

So let’s think big. Let’s look at what can happen when a school starts asking those hard questions. The Harley School, a private school in Rochester, NY, where I live, is perhaps farther along this path than most. And while you could argue that affluence and a progressive bent make it an isolated success story, in fact Harley has faced many of the same obstacles that confound other schools: cost, availability and habit.

Harvesting lettuce for the lunchroom salad bar
(photo courtesy of the Harley School)

What’s interesting is how Harley has approached the shift toward more sustainable food: by involving students deep in the journey, from growing their own organic veggies to, in one case, participating in the purchase and slaughter of a locally raised, grass-fed lamb.

Harley, which has 600 students in preschool through 12th grade, first made changes to its lunch program in 2005. In the years since, it has eliminated most refined grains and processed foods, and now each day offers fresh fruit, a full salad bar, scratchmade soups and several entrees, including a growing number of vegetarian options. The school no longer sells soda or candy or junk vending. And as of this year it’s no longer accepting government-subsidized food. Harley never served much government food to begin with, but the commodity weaning was a conscious decision

But there’s still chocolate milk and juice, and holdouts like processed chicken fingers. The dessert Harley offers twice a week often means packaged sweets like cookies cut and baked from rolls of refrigerated dough. And the school’s summer camp still serves processed white-bread fare

So it’s a work in progress. But still impressive. And now, along with these foundational changes, the school has begun buying local produce and using some locally milled and made breads. And it’s just started tackling the trickiest questions of all: about ethically produced meat, dairy and eggs.

It’s an effort led primarily by Chris Hartman, well-known to Rochester food folks as the co-founder of both the producer-only South Wedge Farmers Market and the Good Food Collective, a multi-farm CSA. Hartman, himself a Harley alum (and now a Harley parent), heads up social and environmental responsibility for the school. (I know Chris personally because I’m a member of the volunteer advisory committee for the South Wedge market. We also bought a share this year in the Good Food Collective CSA.)

Three years ago, Harley students planted their first school garden. It’s now doubled in size, to a quarter acre, basically becoming a microfarm. Last year, it supplied about a week’s worth of produce for the school, including lettuce, green beans, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and herbs. During this year’s growing season, the garden should fill the school’s daily salad bar, plus provide vegetables for some meals. A new high tunnel will extend the season for some crops, and menu planning will maximize seasonal ingredients. Combined, the school garden and local farms should provide about half of Harley’s produce.

But it’s not just about offering better food — it’s also about teaching kids (and families) why the food is better. Buying local food “might be fresher, tastier, safer and more nutritious, but you also have to design your program to support that, to teach people that,” says Ken Motsenbocker, the school’s chief financial officer. “We have to make that intentional.”

That means working with kids in the garden, encouraging them to savor the taste of fresh food and helping them understand how real food fuels their bodies. It means posting signs in the cafeteria when food comes from the garden and local farms. And providing recipes and little samples like in the grocery store. This year Chris plans to send kids home with garden goodies and recipes to make salads with their families and document the results (in words or pictures), what he calls “my little Jamie Oliver-style stuff.”

But of course this all takes time. The small kitchen staff spends hours prepping the salad bar (which might also include yogurt, hummus, eggs, beans and grain salads). Washing, slicing and roasting veggies can take a whole morning. And of course it takes money. Harley has increased its food spending by 20% a year. Yet it’s still not enough to cover all the changes that could be made.

Which is why Chris hopes to find local farmers interested in selling bulk. “This is not going to work well with the market-style farmer selling tomatoes for $5 a quart,” he says. “We need to find farmers willing to charge less by selling more.” That goes for milk, too. Harley plans to ask one of the region’s sustainable dairies about packaging small milk cartons for school use. And if Harley can get these kinds of partners on board, get the infrastructure in place, then maybe those producers can start supplying other schools, too.

Some changes, though, may take a bit longer.

When Chris led an independent study for a group of students to buy, butcher and eat a lamb (an outgrowth of a class on the history and politics of food), the exercise raised a few eyebrows. But it also sparked “the conversation we should be having.” So Harley hosted a student assembly to talk about meat. And that included a hot-button topic for schools nationwide: chicken fingers.

Harley buys the white-meat kind. They’re baked, not fried. But still. They’re processed, full of additives and factory-farmed meat. Finding a local, ethical alternative is highly unlikely. Any national organic version probably costs twice as much. So Chris asked: “What if we eat half as many or have them half as often?” Then Harley could spend the same amount of money, but in better conscience.

The verdict is still out. The assembly took place just before school ended for the summer, and at last count there were students on both sides of the issue (as well as those who thought the school should consider dropping meat altogether). But school is starting again and, with it, the conversation continues.

What about you? Thoughts? Reactions? What kinds of conversations are your schools having?

This post is part of the Lunch Revolution Blog Party (with prizes galore) at Notes from the Cookie Jar and Fed Up With Lunch with Mrs. Q.

One more thing: If your kids bring their own lunches to school, it’s easy to think you’ve escaped the worst of it. But this post, by Better School Food founder (and “Two Angry Moms” crusader) Susan Rubin, reminds us not to get complacent.


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