Idaho School Lunches Surprisingly Healthy 

Farm to School brings fresh fruits and veggies to cafeterias

If you grab a plastic tray and shuffle through an Idaho school lunch line this fall, things will look a bit different than you might remember. In addition to whole grain pasta and brown rice, you're also likely to find a Healthy Choices salad bar and bright posters advertising "incredible edible Idaho" grapes or honey.

"More than 70 percent of our schools in Idaho are serving locally grown food, but nobody knows about it," said Heidi Martin, Idaho State Department of Education Child Nutrition Programs coordinator.

Last year, the Department of Agriculture's Idaho Preferred program teamed up with the ISDE to bring the USDA's Farm to School initiative to five Idaho pilot districts. Though Farm to School isn't funded, the pilot districts have made a pledge to serve locally grown foods in their cafeterias.

"Boise School District committed last year to serve an Idaho food in every cafeteria, every day in September," explained Idaho Preferred's Leah Clark. "They did an incredible job. They increased their sales of local food products ... That's really important to our farmers that they've got this added market now for local produce."

Because farming is such a booming industry in Idaho--in 2007, the market value of agricultural products sold was $5.7 billion--this turned out to be a relatively easy task.

"Considering we serve milk from Meadow Gold, which comes from Idaho farmers, and several other of our products are from either the State of Idaho or regional--we serve Clear Springs trout--it was really easy to do," explained Peggy Bodnar, Boise District food and nutrition services supervisor. "Weekly, we probably had four to five items throughout the year that ... were locally produced."

In Boise, all school meals are planned and purchased at the district level. Because of the logistical pitfalls of partnering with individual farmers to procure and distribute large quantities of produce, the district contracted with food distributor Grasmick Produce.

"With having 48 sites, we're not able to really coordinate nor are the farmers really able to provide that tight level of service that they could deliver to our back doors," said Bodnar.

Local farmer Josie Erskine of Peaceful Belly Farms, a 70-acre ecologically sustainable farm and CSA, said she can't compete price-wise with larger industrial farms.

"It gets pretty cheap out there ... [school districts] cannot take high bids if someone can give them lower bids, so I can't even play in that world," said Erskine.

But in some smaller Idaho school districts, the Farm to School connection is more direct.

"The director in Marsing, because she's in a rural community, she was able to drive over and pick up food directly from the farmers," said Martin. "We even have some schools that actually talk to the farmers before they plant, and there are some farmers that are growing specifically for one school district."

One of those schools is Gooding Elementary. Gooding was the first in the nation to receive the HealthierUS School Challenge Gold Award. Gooding food service director Anji Baumann was even name-dropped by first lady Michelle Obama in a speech to the School Nutrition Association. In addition to having a robust school garden and making whole grain pastas and breads from scratch, Gooding doesn't allow fried foods, candy or soda in vending machines and only features low-fat dairy.

But Gooding isn't an anomaly. According to Martin, the Gem State has some of the strictest nutritional standards in the country.

"Idaho has stronger nutrition standards than the rest of the United States. We have 15 additional standards ... We encourage schools to serve whole grain foods at least three days a week. And we put limitations on pre-fried foods ... We're actually seeing now that other states are emulating what we implemented," said Martin.

Other standards include offering a minimum of one fruit and one non-fried vegetable each day for lunch; the abolition of deep-fat frying and trans fats; the eventual elimination of 2 percent and whole milk; and the removal of all salt and sugar packets.

But even with Idaho's strict nutritional standards--and a growing focus on local, seasonal produce through the Farm to School program--Clark said education is essential.

"When we talk Farm to School, the cafeteria component is one component, but Farm to School in our opinion is broader than that. It's also nutrition and agricultural information in the classroom," said Clark. "It may include a school garden as well."

A handful of schools in the Boise School District currently have gardens. By providing hands-on gardening opportunities, the schools increase kids' exposure to new foods.

"If we bring in a farmer that teaches how he grows pears, then students will eat more pears at lunch the next day ... We definitely see a major change just in the children's willingness to eat fresh produce," said Martin. "We see that with our school gardens, too ... They are so excited to eat vegetables if they grew them themselves."

Bodnar said children are more willing to embrace new fresh foods when they are exposed to them repeatedly.

"If they're not exposed to it at home, it can take up to 10-14 times before a child will acquire a taste and a like for a product," said Bodnar.

According to Bodnar, the Farm to School program is about more than jumping on a growing trend, it's a pressing health concern.

"From a nutritional standpoint, if you can get a food that's ripened on the vine and you're able to harvest it and serve it in a short period of time, the nutrient content is going to be better and the flavor is going to be better so the kids are going to be eating more of it," said Bodnar.

And as more local families slip into poverty, those nutrients become vital for kids who aren't getting them at home. Last school year, 43 percent of students in the Boise School District qualified as low income--which means out of 23,060 total students, 8,470 received free lunch and 1,486 qualified for reduced prices. For every free lunch, the USDA only reimburses schools $2.77.

"Unfortunately, schools have to be very, very efficient because it's hard to make a healthy meal for $2.70, especially when we require whole grains every day and fresh fruits and vegetables," said Martin.

Though Bodnar didn't notice an overall rise in the amount of food consumed after implementing Farm to School, she has seen some of the old mystery meat misconceptions about school lunches begin to melt away.

"I did notice a significant change in the perception of school lunch by participating in the program," said Bodnar. "I couldn't believe how many times I'd go into a cafeteria and have a principal or a student say, 'Oh, it's great, we're all eating the fruit because it's peaches or pears or pluots.' Kids who had never heard of a pluot before were eating pluots."

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