Friday, March 18, 2011

Reporting From FamilyFarmed: Food in the Schools

Posted By on 03.18.11 at 03:45 PM

“School food reflects the food system as a whole,” said Kathy Lawrence at the opening symposium of today’s FamilyFarmed Expo. Where yesterday’s sessions focused largely on the economic nitty-gritty—how to connect food entrepreneurs to cash and customers—today’s dealt with policy on micro and macro levels. And politics, too—speakers like Lawrence, whose organization School Food Focus advocates for healthy and sustainable options for school districts, painted in both broad and close strokes. "Enlightened institutional purchasing," she said, is crucial to ending hunger, obesity, and disease.

Rochelle Davis, CEO of the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, lauded Chicago Public Schools for offering more vegetables, whole grains, and proteins in the meals it serves to students, though she acknowledged some sticking points. "What seems to be absorbing most of our time and attention is the chicken question," Davis said—that is, the problem of procuring poultry that’s antibiotic-free "or something close to it." Suburban Cook County was represented, too: representatives from school districts in Oak Park and Palatine talked in a break-out session about their efforts to offer healthier food—combined with nutritional education—to students.

ericnvntr.jpg
  • ericnvntr@flickr
(As an aside, though, I wonder if there’s any tension between health advocates pushing products like low-sodium, low-fat cheese—a product I heard mentioned more than once today in relation to school lunch programs—and the whole-foods types in attendance, who might rightfully shudder at such a thing: What are we doing to our children’s palates?)

Ken Kaplan, who directs an MIT think tank aimed at developing collaborative initiatives for combating large-scale social problems, underscored the seriousness of the obesity threat; it’ll cost the country $300 billion over the next ten years, he said: "Unless we change the food system, we’re not going to change the health system." He mentioned by way of example the National Integrated Regional Food System, which goes by the excellent acronym NIRF; it’s aimed at developing a network of regional foodsheds in hopes of recasting the U.S. food system with an emphasis on health, economic development, and sustainability.

USDA undersecretary Ann Wright made links between the country’s physical and economic health and its rural communities. "A healthy American economy depends on a thriving rural economy," she said, describing Obama administration initiatives—such as the USDA’s Regional Food Hubs—aimed at strengthening rural food economies.

But back to that cheese, or something like it: healthy-food advocates, particularly in the schools, face dual problems of personal taste—always a tricky issue—and logistics. Rochelle Davis noted one difficulty in implementing healthier menus in CPS: "Not all of these changes have been well received by the students," she said. Micheline Piekarski, who directs food and nutrition at Oak Park and River Forest High School, found that kids warmed to greater access to fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, she said, OPRF is an open campus, "so we can still lose them to the Tasty Dog down the street."

And there’s the infrastructure challenges inherent in preparing noninstitutional foods in institutional settings. "It’s really tough to cook healthful meals from whole foods when you’ve got a box cutter, a can opener, and a warming tray," Kathy Lawrence said.

The longer the symposium lasted, the more smells wafted from across the hall, where vendors were preparing for the 11:30 AM opening of the trade show floor. Now's when FamilyFarmed gets serious about its gastronomy—a Localicious party tonight features contributions from area restaurants. Tomorrow’s when the Expo opens up to the general public; workshops and lectures cover topics from vertical farming and traditional diets to pickling and cheese making. I hope there are samples.

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