You have probably heard the term ‘local food sourcing’ and you may very well be in favor of it for your local restaurants and grocery stores. It seems like a great idea – it helps farmers and your local economy, it saves energy by making it so foods don’t have to be transported so far from farm to table, and it puts you more in touch with nature. That is, you eat according to nature’s schedule of asparagus in the spring, zucchini in the summer and apples in the autumn and turnips in the winter.

But have you ever considered local food sources in the context of a school cafeteria?

The Pros of Local Food Sourcing

The United States Department of Agriculture supports the use of locally sourced foods in schools. The USDA provides program flexibility, as ‘local’ might differ for school districts in Chicago versus school districts in Little Rock. The USDA also provides entitlement money for schools. Schools can elect to spend some of their USDA food entitlement funds on fresh fruits and vegetables under the Department of Defense’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. This California information is typical of the program, e. g. that it’s a ‘use it or lose it’ type of program.

Locally grown produce, when it’s at the height of its season, is inexpensive, particularly in bulk. If you have ever tried to get rid of extra baskets of zucchini or tomatoes in your garden, then you are well aware of the abundance of riches. Florida has citrus, California has avocados, Wisconsin has cheese, and Texas has dairy and beef, just to mention a few.

Locally sourced food goes beyond fruits and vegetables and can include wheat as made into bread or pizza crusts, turkey in sandwiches, and the cheese in grilled cheese, milk in a cup, and more. The only limits on the use of locally sourced foods come from a school’s and a school nutrition specialist’s imagination and budget.

The Cons of Local Food Sourcing

And of course that is the big elephant in the room – the budget. Even with USDA programs, school cafeterias always must be budget conscious. Michigan State University puts school lunch costs at maybe 30 to 50 cents per serving, with a near-equivalent amount of the cost to the child going to foodstuffs and to labor. The remaining 10% or so goes to supplies, contract services, and indirect charges. As MSU notes, even donated food costs schools money, as it needs transportation, storage, cooking, and serving. Plus the remainder must be cleaned up.

Another con is the seasonality of foods. For a school in New Jersey, citrus can never be locally sourced. Must that school give up its orange juice? And in the winter, what’s available locally in the Garden State? As is the case with much of the northern parts of the United States, about the only crops available are root vegetables like turnips, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and onions. This also creates a flexibility issue. When are the most fruits and vegetables available? In the summer. When are most students not in school? That’s also in the summer. There is a disconnect between supply and demand, and food storage does not help much, as many of these produce items are too delicate for long-term storage. You cannot freeze lettuce, for example, without destroying it.

Which brings us to the next con – will the kids eat it? Food waste is a huge problem already. The National Institutes of Health studied middle schools in Boston in 2013 and found that the students discard about 26.1% of the food. If extrapolated across the United States, that comes to annual food wastage of $1.24 billion.  Will the kids eat cauliflower unless it’s really camouflaged, perhaps in a chili? What about parsnips, which are a vegetable many school children have never seen before?

Some tips from the Restaurant Industry

Locavore restaurants have been dealing with these issues, and they have a few methods which can translate to school cafeterias.

Go to Farmers’ Markets

Find out what’s available and ask questions if you do not see what you want. You might be surprised to learn what can be grown in your state – and what is available locally if you expand the definition of ‘local’.

Read Food Labels Closely

When you see a local food for sale at your local grocery, take note of which farm or company supplies it. Develop relationships with these suppliers so that they will work with your school if an item is not available or if the supplier has an overstock.

Manage Expectations

For restauranteurs, it is somewhat easier to tell adult diners that the Brussels sprouts are not available during any given week. But what can you say, when it comes to children? Will they balk if their favorite strawberry shortcake is off the menu for months? Perhaps this is a good time for a teachable moment. If children are taught that food is not available all the time, they might grow up to be locavores themselves. Plus a lesson in delayed gratification is probably a good idea, too.

Edit Your Menu

The smaller your menu is, the easier it is to cook seasonally. As a corollary to this, consider all the different ways you can use a particular foodstuff. If you have a lot of ground beef, it can go into burgers, sloppy Joes, pizzas, and the like. This can also help to cut down on the number of leftovers.

Local Food Sourcing Can Work

Local food sourcing can definitely work, but it needs time, flexibility, and imagination, plus it needs the support of the school board and other management. Parental support can help as well. Enlisting the help of parents and the community will help to assure buy in. Local food sourcing is often healthier and it can be less expensive. Those are both big wins for nutritionists, parents, teachers, and students alike.

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