10/29/13 Alamance County FARM FRESH
Alamance-Burlington schools work to serve locally produced food in cafeterias
By Isaac Groves, The Times-News 10/29/13
Reprinted with permission.
North Carolina is among the country’s leaders in buying and serving local food to students — based on the U.S. Agriculture Department’s first nationwide “Farm to School Census” of school districts, according to the Associated Press. The Alamance-Burlington School System is ahead of the curve.
“That affects all students because I serve it to every student from pre-K to 12th grade,” said Kathy Oakley, director of food service at ABSS.
“We like to think of ourselves as the largest restaurant in Alamance County,” Oakley said. “I don’t know that many restaurants that serve 14,000 meals a day.”
Alamance-Burlington is one of 73 out of 115 school districts, or 63 percent, saying they participate in the USDA’s farm-to-school program.
They do so by getting some food for school lunches and breakfasts from farms in North Carolina or neighboring states, and planting vegetable gardens, according to the census.
The food served to the nearly 1 million children in those districts reflects a broader trend of people choosing locally produced foods.
Participating North Carolina schools reported in the 2011-12 school year directing nearly 20 percent of their school food spending to local sources. ABSS reported spending 30 percent of its $4.2 million food costs on local food.
The total child nutrition budget for the ABSS is $11 million, Oakley said.
Among the North Carolina schools participating in the census, Vance County reported the highest percentage of going local — spending 50 percent of its food budget locally, followed by the Mount Airy schools at 45 percent and Chapel Hill-Carrboro at 39 percent. Combined, the Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune school districts reported 40 percent.
In the largest districts, Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg both reported spending 17 percent of food money locally, while Guilford County was at 10 percent.
While some states are spending a greater portion of their overall food budget locally, the $34.4 million that North Carolina districts reported is second only to California at $48 million in the most dollars spent locally, the USDA reported.
School districts nationwide participating in the census reported $355 million in local food purchases. North Carolina is an overachiever, Kevin Concannon, the department’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said Wednesday.
Twenty-five percent of the state’s school districts also reported having schools tending gardens with vegetables. Alamance-Burlington reported no vegetable gardens it its schools.
Oakley said the system gets food from the farm-to-school program through the USDA itself.
Fruits and vegetables from around the state and neighboring Southeastern states come through a department warehouse in Butner. Food is often prepared, like apples from the North Carolina mountains coming sliced and ready to serve, Oakley said.
The Department of Defense Fresh Program also supplies some local foods to ABSS. The USDA works with DoD because of its buying power and its supply, delivery and tracking network, according the to USDA.
Those apples, melons, tomatoes, greens and sweet potatoes are often from instate, Oakley said. What the schools get depends on the season, of course. ABSS does not track which farms are supplying the program, Oakley said. The USDA has a list of farms following Good Agricultural Practices to qualify to supply schools.
The USDA’s farm-to-school program intends to encourage healthy foods at school lunch tables and help local economies. Purchasing local foods or having locally grown foods fill cafeteria dishes may be cheaper than transporting products great distances, Colcannon said.
Oakley said she could not be sure the program saved any money, but having fresh fruits and vegetables was good for students, schools and farmers.
“It is a great benefit just for the quality of the fruits and vegetables we receive,” Oakley said.
A 2010 law authorized the USDA to help schools and other organizations improve the prevalence of locally grown foods in school cafeterias. The USDA gives as much as $5 million in grants to help districts with program initiatives.
The department also oversees the federal school breakfast and lunch programs for children in low-income families.
The results aren’t yet complete; districts have until Nov. 30 to respond to the census requests. But 97 North Carolina districts already have responded. The final results will serve as a baseline to measure against future results.