- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

DELMAR, Md. — The strawberries just turning red on this Eastern Shore field could end up on plates almost anywhere — just not on cafeteria trays at a middle school down the road.

Wicomico County farmer Patrick Hochmuth remembers when farmers delivered produce to local schools, but now the only local outlets for his 15 acres of produce are farmers markets. That’s because schools aren’t set up to accept local produce, under a complex national food distribution grid in which apples from Maryland end up on cafeteria trays in South Carolina but aren’t served in local schools.

“The trouble is that major school systems, to get what they want, they deal with a wholesaler. They want a one-stop shop,” Mr. Hochmuth said.

A bill awaiting the governor’s signature aims to change that. It’s part of a national Farm to School movement that is headed to Maryland to encourage more local produce on cafeteria trays. The twin missions of boosting local farmers while trimming fuel costs for shipping food long distances received unanimous approval from Maryland legislators.

The bill would start a “Maryland Homegrown” week in school cafeterias and encourage schools to teach children about local agriculture through farm field trips. Some states display posters of local farmers in cafeterias so children filing through lunch lines learn where their food originates.

“This is a great idea,” said Bobi Crispins, who grows fruits, vegetables and flowers in Millersville but doesn’t sell to local schools.

Asked why she doesn’t sell to three schools near her farm, Miss Crispins said, “I never could figure that out. I tell you the truth, I can see in the fall and winter when nothing’s in season. But when you have things in season, the kids could have food hours from being picked instead of a few days from being picked.”

It’s a lot more complicated than it sounds to get produce from across the street into a school. Schools are bound by U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines that sometimes leave them with only 90 cents per meal to spend on food. Bidding laws mean that schools often aren’t allowed to spend more on produce grown locally.

In addition, schools need orders placed months in advance and often aren’t equipped to handle simple preparation like peeling carrots or scrubbing dirt-crusted potatoes.

The limitations result in the cafeteria food everyone remembers: canned fruit salad, frozen vegetable medleys and salad bars populated by limp iceberg lettuce and wooden grated carrots.

“The food services in most schools aren’t usually prepared to deal with whole foods. They want something that’s at least partially prepared and ready to pop in the oven,” said Janet Bachmann of the Arkansas-based National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, a USDA-funded agency that promotes local foods in schools.

Maryland’s bill would put educators in touch with state Department of Agriculture marketing people to figure out how to put products such as Mr. Hochmuth’s berries in schools. Officials in other states have said both schools and farms are enthusiastic about the idea of local food in cafeterias and just need a go-between to get it started.

“They did want to purchase local, but they didn’t know whether they could or not, how would they do it, would there be the quantity, would the price be in line,” said Chris Kirby, program administrator for Oklahoma’s Farm to School Program. Oklahoma started serving locally grown melons in a few schools in 2002, and now that state’s melon program has grown to hundreds of schools.

Miss Kirby said agriculture education and more local produce in cafeterias help address childhood obesity. When children learn about agriculture, they become naturally curious about trying new foods.

“I’ve seen kids get excited about beets and turnips and radishes because they pulled it out of the ground. But if you hand a kid a beet and say, ‘Eat this, it’s good for you,’ they say, ‘Eww,’ ” Miss Kirby said.

Because of the rising obesity rate, states are willing to invest more than ever in school food.

“I’d say in the past five years, it’s gained a lot of momentum. People are saying, ‘Good grief. Our kids are eating such junk,’ ” Miss Bachmann said.

The environment is another reason to spend on local produce. Local food reduces fuel needed for shipping, and when schools buy locally, they can make local farmers more profitable and therefore more likely to stay farming.

“If you support a local farmer, you’re helping keep them profitable, and if you do that, you’re helping preserve open space and helping the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Mark Powell, chief of marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

The state likely will start small once the program is signed into law, but farmers are excited about selling to neighborhood schools.

“I think education is the best way we can sustain ourselves,” said J.D. Rinehart, owner of Rinehart Orchards in Washington County. “We need to make them aware that food doesn’t come from a grocery store. It comes from a farm and a grower that works tirelessly to get that food out there.”

Mr. Rinehart has 400 acres of apples and peaches, and he sells them by the truckload to a food broker that supplies schools. But Mr. Rinehart’s apples end up in South Carolina and New Jersey, not in Maryland. He would rather see his apples going to cafeteria lines in his home county.

“Instead of buying a box from around the world, or Washington state, we can deliver a box that’s as good, as fresh. It makes a lot of sense,” Mr. Rinehart said.

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