Cole Cottin says she will never forget the day she invited a group of elementary school kids to her farm in Lawrence.
They spent the day harvesting radishes. When Cottin asked the group whether any of them had ever tried a radish, she got a wave of head shakes.
“Well, you probably won’t want to try it,” she said, holding up one of the freshly picked radishes. “It’s pretty spicy.”
To her surprise, the kids bubbled with excitement.
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“I want to try one!” someone said.
Soon, Cottin was scrubbing and cutting up radishes as quickly as she could to keep up with the kids’ demand.
The experience solidified Cottin’s belief that group-think among kids might just be a force for good in some situations. Maybe, she thought, when kids have a better idea of where their food comes from, they will be more likely to make healthy choices.
That’s the philosophy behind a number of different efforts that schools across the state – and across the nation – are implementing in their kitchens and cafeterias. School districts are making big changes to what’s on kids’ plates, but they’re not all taking the same path.
The greening plate
In 2010, Congress passed a law that made major changes to school lunches. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act mandated that each meal include a serving of vegetables. It also increased the serving size so that meat made up a smaller portion of the plate and vegetables a larger one.
The bill’s supporters said it was a necessary weapon in the fight against childhood obesity. According to 2012 figures, the most recent accessible data, more than 25 percent of Kansas teens are overweight, as are 30 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds.
Nancy O’Connor, director of education and outreach at the Merc cooperative grocery in Lawrence, said that public awareness around the issue has coincided with an increasing interest in local foods.
The numbers back her up. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the number of farmers markets in the U.S. more than quadrupled between 1994 and 2013 and has risen nearly 4 percent in the past year alone.
“The timing is just right,” O’Connor said.
“If something is ready to happen, you can gain traction very quickly.”
‘Can’t bring us enough’
There’s one man whom Melodi Bowen credits with drastically changing what students eat for lunch in Emporia’s public schools.
“We call him ‘Farmer Gary,’ ” she said.
Bowen, the food service production manager for Emporia Public Schools, said Gary Jensen, a local farmer, got in touch with her because he wanted to bring his produce into schools. He met with members of the high school student council and helped them develop a list of healthy foods they would like to see in the cafeteria.
Sadly, Bowen said, Jensen is now fighting cancer. But she has taken up the cause of bringing locally grown foods into schools.
Several of Emporia’s public schools get federal funding through the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to serve fresh produce during the school day outside of the lunchroom a few days a week. Bowen said she wants to work on getting more of those fruits and vegetables from local sources.
“It’s really rewarding to get calls from parents whose kids are asking for jicama or beet sticks or yellow baby carrots,” Bowen said.
Bowen said she’s working with some other local farmers – brothers Mark and Ron Jirak of Jirak Brothers Produce in Tampa, Kan. – to incorporate more local produce into the 2,800 lunches her staff prepares daily. She will be getting apples from the Orchard, a local outfit run by Bob Karr.
Why go through the trouble of contacting individual farmers rather than using a national distribution company?
“Jobs,” Bowen said. “That’s always my No. 1 thing.
“When the Hostess plant went, all the newscasters could talk about was the plight of the Twinkie. I could care less about that stupid Twinkie; what about all those people who lost their jobs?” Bowen said, speaking about the closing of the Hostess plant in Emporia.
Bowen said buying produce directly from farmers is a way to put money back into the local economy.
When it comes to filling students’ lunch trays with locally grown produce, the Merc’s O’Connor acknowledges that it takes some extra work on the part of food service supervisors.
“There has to be a very high level of motivation for this change to happen,” O’Connor said.
Farmers, too, face obstacles when it comes to selling produce to local schools. Natalie Fullerton works with farmers across the state through the Kansas Rural Center. She said the biggest issue facing the farmers she works with is volume: small, family-run farms simply cannot deliver produce at the scale that most larger school districts require.
“They can run into a lot of red tape,” said Lawrence farmer Cottin.
One possible solution is already being practiced in Lawrence: school gardens.
At West Middle School, students grow food that ends up on their plates. The Lawrence Journal-World reported in 2010 that West’s garden project provided the school’s cafeteria with 180 pounds of produce, and students earned $4,000 by selling their harvest at a local farmers market; they re-invested that money in the garden.
O’Connor said the garden’s produce tastes better than what comes off the back of a semi-tractor trailer truck, which makes kids more likely to eat it.
“Taste drives consumer choices, and that’s certainly true for kids,” O’Connor said. “If we’re trying to get kids to make healthier choices, those choices have to taste good.”
One of the most popular items on the salad bar, O’Connor said, is the sugar-sweet cherry tomatoes from West’s garden.
“When a school district traditionally buys tomatoes, they’re imported from across the border, shipped green and kind of hard and flavorless,” O’Connor said.
“Do kids want to eat that cardboard tomato? No.”
‘It just isn’t going to happen’
At the USD 259 food production center, Vicki Hoffman and her staff plan, cook and serve 20,000 lunches every day for Wichita’s public school students.
She and her staff are adapting to the regulations in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, but she said bringing in fruits and vegetables from local farms just isn’t feasible given the amount of produce they need to buy.
“With our volume, it’s hard to find a vendor who can provide local food,” she said. “It just isn’t going to happen.”
Still, Hoffman and her staff are taking steps to encourage students to eat the fruits and vegetables they get. After a pilot project at Horace Mann showed kids were more likely to eat fruits and vegetables when they were given a choice of what kind to put on their plates, Hoffman and her staff are rolling out the choice program at all of Wichita’s elementary schools.
“When kids are given a choice, they consume more of what they pick,” Hoffman said.
The district has also changed its system for buying produce. In past years, production companies bid on each order, a three-week-long process that made it difficult to serve seasonal produce. This year, Hoffman said one company, Liberty Fruit based in Kansas City, Mo., will provide all of the district’s produce, which will make it easier to serve seasonal items.
Scott Danner, Liberty Fruit’s chief operating officer, said the percentage of produce his company gets from Kansas and Missouri farmers is “very low.” He said the company mandates that all growers be certified by a third party, such as the USDA, which can be a major barrier for small farmers.
“There are lots of farmers out there growing healthy, great crops, working hard, but just don’t have the time to get all the documentation,” Danner said.
Despite the challenges that face farmers and school districts, O’Connor is optimistic about the future of local food in public schools.
“The other day, four of us were in the West garden harvesting onions, and the kids were saying things like, ‘These onions are so beautiful; I love onions,’ ” O’Connor said.
“That’s progress, and that’s really inspiring. That’s hope right there.”