So I've got this idea about how to get more locally source food in our school cafeteria. I really think it could work, but there's a lot of work that would need to be done over the next year. Here's the background...
I recently was published in the Huffington Post (twice actually) as a part of a series they're doing on school lunches. And while my colleague whom I interviewed did most of the writing, we did have some good dialogue about how to get even more local food in the cafeteria.
Here are the challenges to getting more local food in schools:
1) The food itself is more expensive. Sure it may be more nutrient packed, and it arguably has less embodied energy, but local usually translates to expensive - I would guess in large part to the federal subsidies of large food producers. Ug.
2) Local food typically requires more labor, and thus it's more costly. As my colleague likes to say, it will always be cheaper to open a can of carrots than chop carrots. We may be able to partner with a local food hub, like the Central Vermont Food Hub, and they could potentially supply us with pre-processed foods, so we could continue to simply open cans of carrots, so to speak, but they may be limited as to what types of foods are available.
3) Some local foods are not abundant. For example, the school might be hard pressed to get all of its red meat locally sourced because there is a bottle neck on slaughtering facilities. Dear politicians, what are we doing about this? This needs to change.
4) Government subsidies cost the cafeteria. You might not realize this, but for every "free" or "reduced" meal that the cafeteria "sells", the government doesn't reimburse the cafeteria for the price of that meal. It only reimburses something like 80% of that meal. (Don't quote me on that statistic. It's an approximation.) So the cafeteria makes up for its loss by selling a la cart crap at marked up prices. In case you're not familiar, this might be anything from chex mix to ice cream to cookies.
Ok. Enough with the problems. My point is that the limits to local food are primarily financial, with the exception of availability. So here's one possible solution.
What if on the next Town Meeting Day ballot there was an item that read, "Shall the City of Montpelier appropriate the sum of $__________ for the Montpelier Food Service to provide locally sourced meals for Montpelier students?" That blank could cover the extra position needed for additional labor as well as the extra cost of the food.
Here's why this makes sense:
1) We have exhausted other resources. I have heard some people say that getting extra funding is a great idea, but it shouldn't come from the tax payers it should come from grants. We already involved with Farm to School. Even if we received more grants, those would not be long term solutions. Ok, maybe asking the taxpayers isn't exactly a long term solution, but it's better than trying to find new grant money every year.
2) The school cafeteria is arguably a public good, sort of like the library. The federal government subsidizes meals for students because students who are hungry just can't learn. The trade off now seems apparent. Either we have hungry kids who can't learn or we have obese & malnourished kids who can learn. Hm. I reject both of these things. We can do better.
3) This is a way for us to keep more of our food dollars in our local economy. Money spent on local agriculture has a multiplier effect of two or three, which means this is a better use of your kid's lunch money than where it's ultimately going now.
We're still in the very early planning stages, but the response seems generally positive. I hope it passes, but not just for its stated objectives, but also because this may be a model other cities and towns could use to transition to locally sourced food. If we can show that it works here, it could be a highly transferable model.