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.
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.
Copyright protected by Digiprove © 2010 Christina Le Beau
Thank you for participating! I think when I started the blog I was a little naive. We are so far from being “there,” especially in my district. The school lunch issue is so complex. I’m so happy it’s getting attention, but we’re still waiting to see what it will take for real change to come. Thanks for the thought-provoking and well-written post.
Very interesting, well written post – well done! What our children eat is such an important issue, it is great to see it finally getting the attention it deserves.
After a year of hard -work and organizing – particularly through exposing parents to what is actually in the USDA commodities served at our school (and everyone’s school) through our blog (www.scsfood.blogspot.com) – we are finally getting better school food this fall. The highly processed food and canned fruits will be out but only with an increase in the price of lunch and still we are nowhere near being able to serve fresh or organic foods. Great post – keep up the good work and parent groups like ours will try to, too.
WOW!! I’ve driven past the Harley School. My sister lives in Rochester. The school always looked nice, now I KNOW.
While living in a rural area has its’ perks, eating well is not one of them, ironically enough. I get a bit tired with most of the grant money for school gardens donated to urban areas. I realize those areas are more populated, thus creating more awareness. However, rural kids are just as starved for good nutrition and out of the box educational opportunities!
I am on a mission to get the schools in our county, Cattaraugus, to raise gardens to supply the food pantries with fresh produce. After that hopefully the school children will want to eat the produce themselves! Baby steps in this community, baby steps.
Thank you for sharing Christina!
Is the Harley School public or private? I know of a few private schools in this area (Waldorf and Montessori) that have gardens like these and conversations like this are happening there on an ongoing basis. But if Harley is public ( I know I should really go look for myself) then I am quite impressed. That’s a bigger budget than most public schools have or would put towards food instead of other academic/art, etc options. Anyway, fantastic article as always. Thank you for sharing this!
Hey, Melodie. Harley is private. I did mention that in the post, but it was just one word in a verrry long piece, so I’m not surprised you missed it!
Great post. I love tht even though there is more work to be done, this school seems to be so much further ahead than most schools (granted it is private, but still).
aaah…a woman after my own heart. I live in MN, but am New Zealand born and raised. I am an outspoken advocate on food ethics and my daughter is entering Kindergarten in a week. I’m actively teaching my children that we must know where our food comes from and make sure it is ethically raised (we are not vegetarians but we eat minimal meats). This nation has fallen into ‘manufacturing’ animals for meat as opposed to ‘raising’ them…it is a sad state of affairs, but if more people show an interest we might make changes. Just look at DC schools, it’s not a monumental change, but no longer will they offer ‘flavored’ milks at lunch…baby steps.
and if we educate our kids to know how food is produced they will care about what they put in their bodies.
thank you for such an inspired post
I commend your focus on how to make lunches nutritious, sustainable, local, etc, etc. I think I am more of a muddling through person. I am feeding my little guy more veggies than most & I do buy them from the farmer’s market. I support agriculture through buying from a CSA. I guess I do lots of the right things but I find myself looking negatively on myself when I read articles that say (to me anyway)….I know you’re trying but you’re missing the boat b/c you just did this and not that and that and that.
Anyway….keep up the good work because with all the pushing from passionate people like you will get them to change.
Merry, I, too, find myself wondering sometimes if I’m doing as much as I could. But I think we need to realize that those of us who are even thinking about these things are so far ahead of the game already. I also truly believe that every step counts. One foot, then the other and all that.
We in India already cultivated this habit. In Kerala (Province) many schools promote gardening with vegitables etc..
I love, just love, your blog posts.
This is partly why I turned my recipe blog into Chasing Tomatoes, and started on my own quest to eat more locally grown, sustainable, healthy food. The blog is about us trying to find that food and the adventures that go along with it.
My son is almost finished school, and doesn’t eat in the cafeteria at all. You are very right-can’t become complacent, and so it’s been interesting to see the reactions that he gets with his own lunches.
I would love it if his school had a garden.
Karen, you’re very kind. And good for you taking on yet another challenge. Can’t wait to read along.
Just discovered you via the blog party. I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit! I’ll try to work in a mention of your site on The Lunch Tray in the near future and will share the link.
Kindred indeed. Love what you’re doing with your blog, and I’d be honored to get a mention.
I’m personally a big fan of bringing lunch from home, but this gives me hope that there might be a chance of “real” food from the cafeteria too. I bet a lot more kids buy their lunch there than would if it were a traditional cafeteria!
At Harley, lunch is included in tuition, so while kids can certainly bring their own lunches if they want to, it’s rare that anyone does. And the cafeteria has fresh fruit available for snacks all day, as well.
This sounds like a wonderful program. Thank you for the article! It sounds like Chris is making profound changes the only way that sticks: in baby steps. I would think the easiest way to change the chicken fingers would be to make them from scratch, from fresh chicken breast. Of course, I imagine he’s thought of that, and that there is an expense factor that would have to be dealt with to make it happen.
I wonder if this change will take place in my childrens lifetime. It seems there is much red tape to unravel before this becomes the standard. I cant seem to wrap my head around how we got where we are with food in the first place. So sad that I have to re-learn what/how to eat and what to feed my family after years of my parents feeding us what they honestly believed to be wholesome. ie: white bread, milk, beef, chicken, pork, eggs etc. When you try to explain that these are not wholesome healthy foods to people, they look at you like youre insane. They insist youre children will suffer and need all types of supplements to make up for the missing “nutrients” in the dead carcasses and animal products they are not eating. Seriously? Wheres the common sense? I just hope this catches on much quicker than I expect it to. There are too many brainwashed people hindering & controlling this from becoming a reality. It sickens me to see mothers, fathers, teachers and children with picket signs demanding that their childrens schools keep the soda and candy machines. We have a long road ahead of us.
Keep up the good work!
Chris- Great job with this blog, and thank you for taking a look at our efforts here at Harley. Your work is important and inspiring, dialog much needed.
Perhaps most significant is the way in which your information and commentary lead to further conversations, contagious dialog, and actions towards positive change. Here at Harley, since your post above, things have been moving right along. It seems as though your attention to our efforts has been a catalyst pushing us forward.
In addition to our own micro-farm’s harvest (which has been abundant and well featured in the dining hall) we have been sourcing a significant amount of food from local farms. All of our apples, pears, and carrots for snack are from local farms. We have served roasted butternut squash, turnip soup, beets, carrots, swiss chard, green beans, and peppers from local organic farms. All of our ground beef and hamburgers are now from a local farm. And much more is in the works.
I have had my chef hat on and have been providing students with samples during lunch, students have been busy in the garden harvesting for the dining hall, students have brought the materials for a salad from our garden home with them to prepare a salad for their family and document the experience. Edible education and real student engagement, it is a great thing to watch unfold!
The school has formed a food subcommittee to our sustainability committee, engaging faculty, staff, and students in leadership roles furthering this work.
Progress is steady, many more hurdles ahead. Chicken fingers, for example, are still a matter of hot discussion. Indeed, as one of your comments suggested, we have looked at making them ourselves as well as a few other options available. It is a challenge of money, time, availability, and will…but there are solutions to discover! We will get there.
Thanks again for your work and the important dialog you foster!
Chris, thanks so much for the update. I’m impressed with how quickly things have progressed. And so very glad that my blogging helped. That’s what it’s all about.
Hi Christina –
This topic is very important to me, and you are right – everywhere you look there are campaigns and noise being made about changing what kids are eating. And that’s a very good thing, however, I can’t agree with you more that the focus on sustainable and real food is not as strong as it should be. It’s getting there, but we still have a long way to go. I still hear a lot of talk on blogs and other sites, and in the media about reducing fat and calories, and these folks just don’t seem to understand the importance of what kids are eating and that they do indeed need healthy, traditional fats AND calories to grow, develop, and be successful.
I’ve done a great deal of work in my own city with the local school district. I worked for over a year with one other mom as the co-chair with me on a committee that was supposed to make big changes to our school’s offerings of food. Not only did the findings we presented to the school district about how unhealthy the foods they serving go unnoticed, but we also brought the Two Angry Moms movie to Boise (where we live) and after the school superintendent watched the show he stood up and said, “we have always brought nutritious lunches to children and we will continue to do so”, and the head dietitian got up and said, “I’m so glad we’re one of the good guys!” Meaning, they watched the entire movie and saw absolutely no similarity between our school food program and the ones being showcased in the film. Very discouraging!
Now, I and the same Mom each have our children at a new charter school which doesn’t currently have the funding for a lunch program – but the principal has stated he doesn’t know whether he wants to go there at all due to the absolute lack of control we as parents and staff actually have over changing the school lunch menus in this city. So I am co-chair on the lunch committee with my partner, Tracy, and our job is to present educational materials and opportunities for the parents so they can be informed about what they are feeding their kids for breakfast each morning and packing to school for lunches. So far I’m not sure if the message has gotten across the way we want – we’ve had various comments about what a good job we are doing, but I have still seen a lot of junk in lunches when I’ve been at the school and my son tells me a lot of children are still bringing a lot of junk and processed foods as well. It’s going to take some education, for sure. We also have two women who are going to come and present parent-education classes at our school for no fee, and the curriculum is based on WAP principles – so I am very excited about that! I have a complimentary copy of the Nourishing Our Children presentation that I received earlier this year from the SF chapter president, Sandrine Hahn. I’ve shown parts of this presentation to our lunch committee and I think the overall impression was that it was too extreme for most parents. I know it’s definitely not a mainstream way of looking at food and health, but I also believe it’s one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen and really, something has to be done to show parents and the community just what the processed, industrial foods everyone is eating are doing to our health and the environment. So I don’t know what’s going to become of my showing this presentation to our school, but the two women who are putting together classes for us are very interested in this presentation, so I really hope after I show it to them we can come up with a way to get it out to the public so people can see it. Keep up the good work Christina in making these issues visible! 🙂
Raine, thanks for sharing this story. I’ll be interested to hear more (or perhaps read more on your blog?) about the presentation. Weston Price materials can be offputting even for some of us who subscribe to the same basic philosophies, so I think you’re smart to be aware of that potential. It’s too easy for people to shut down when they feel bombarded and judged. Which is why baby steps — as slow and infuriating as they can seem — really do count for something.