Putting it into Practice | January 1, 2006

Getting good food into your child’s school.

This month, we spoke with Mark Smith, a former Farm Aid staff member and co-founder of Brookwood Community Farm in Massachusetts. But it was his other job that interested us most — that as a parent concerned with what his two children eat in the cafeterias of the Boston public schools they attend.

What first inspired you to improve the food served in Boston schools?

MARK: What motivated me was just hearing about the food that was being served in school — they’re practically serving fried dough for lunch. What also really bothered me was how hearing my kids tell me that they have less than twenty minutes to eat. So they need to rush down to the cafeteria and eat as fast as they can — it’s just not a way that kids can learn good eating habits.

Years ago, back in 2002 or 2003, I’d heard of a decision being made that allowed the National School Lunch Program to sell irradiated beef to schools all over the country and got kind of alarmed by this. I began sending around an email letter to other parents I knew in the Boston public school system to let them know what was going on. Within a couple weeks, I had 120 signatures and knew there was a lot of support for not allowing our school system to buy this irradiated beef based on our safety concerns. So I found out when the next school committee meeting was and got it on the agenda and testified as a parent with those signatures backing me up.

What was the outcome?

The school committee made the decision with very little fanfare or publicity — I just got an email back from them saying that they’d decided not to buy irradiated beef. That was one little victory.

After your initial victory with the irradiated beef, what else did you do to try and get better food into schools?

A year or two later, around 2005, I sent a letter to the Director of Food Services for Boston Public Schools and asked if we could meet to discuss ways in which the school lunch program could source food from local farmers. She agreed to meet and I found a couple other people who were in a position to help get some ideas going. They were a huge help; Michael Rozyne, of Red Tomato, had experience with distributing food from small farms, and Kelly Erwin, of the Massachusetts Farm to School Projectalready had some success in central and western Massachusetts getting local food into schools. I think the Director of Food Services was relieved. Later she told me that after I had testified against irradiated beef, they figured I was a rabble-rouser or some kind of a radical. They were a little afraid that I was going to come down on them really hard, but I just wanted to see what we could accomplish working together.

We discussed ways we could start and decided to look at what it would take to get one locally-sourced item into the school lunches: apples. Unfortunately the procurement system and the per-capita budget that school departments have for each student — all that stuff got in the way.

To make a long story short, I think a lot of learning took place on everyone’s end, but after a year or so, I moved on and didn’t pursue it any further. But I think it opened their eyes to the benefits of buying from local farms. And of course, the movement has come so far since those days.

What were the main challenges in getting the farm to school program off the ground?

Two main issues, I think. With Michael Rozyne’s help, we were able to put together a report on what some of the costs would be in trying to get these local apples into the schools. But a major roadblock was the school system having a contract with a big out-of-state food processing and distribution company, and at the time there was no good way of getting those local apples into that company’s system.

The budget for school lunches, in general, was also a big issue. If they budgeted something like $1.10 per meal per kid, it seemed like a huge challenge for getting a fair price for farmers for their products. The idea was that farmers would take something like fifty cents for a pound of apples, when they could go to a farmers market and charge a couple dollars for the same thing — it was a hard sell in both directions.

Did you hear any feedback from other parents on what you were trying to do?

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I was trying to get that apple program going was not working harder to mobilize a group of parents to join in. Eventually, I did hear from some of the parents that had signed on against irradiated beef and they wanted to know what they could do about school food. They wanted to build on that initial movement we had so there is real energy there for people to capture and put into changing the system.

What would you tell other parents to do if they’re concerned with the food being served to their kids?

Some of the things that I did are worth doing and don’t require a huge investment in time or money — whether it’s a letter with signatures used to testify at a school committee meeting, or trying to bring interested people together to try and meet with school officials. I think there’s a lot that parents can do in trying to advocate for any part of the school system. Parents are like a sleeping giant and I think once you awaken the imagination and the interest of parents; you can really build a movement in your school system. There’s nothing more powerful than a self-righteous parent clamoring for justice for their kids! If the parents aren’t going to take it up, who will?

Since Mark’s efforts, Boston Public Schools have made some headway in bringing farm-fresh food into the cafeteria. Just this summer, the newly formed USDA Farm to School Team chose Boston Public Schools as one of fifteen school districts it would visit in order to assess how local farmers, local and state authorities, school districts and community partners can work together to support Farm to School activities, both from the school and farmer perspectives, and the effects the activities have had on the school and the community.

Statewide, the Massachusetts legislature passed a very important bill in July, creating health guidelines for the food that is sold in our schools, whether in vending machines, school stores or the cafeteria. The bill also includes a provision for preferential purchasing for products grown in Massachusetts, making it easier for local farmers to bring their product to the school cafeteria.

As Mark’s story illustrates, it’s not easy, but nothing happens if you do nothing!

Join the Conversation

From HOMEGROWN.org‘s Earth Mamas and Papas group, “USDA/School food Quandary“: a father is outraged and disappointed to see that his efforts to keep junk food away from his daughter are being undermined by the “system.” “She’s two years old and already falling on the darkside. We’ve lost her, I thought.”

What is the food like at schools in your community? Do your kids buy lunch at school and are you happy with the offerings? Have you thought about getting family farmer food into your school? Weigh in with your opinions in the comments.

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