Friday, July 8, 2011

Local Food in School Cafeterias

The Houston Independent School District has just announced plans to buy more local produce for use in school cafeterias.  According to their press release, reprinted in The West University Examiner, they hope to buy up to 25% of the produce they use locally (up from 11%).  Their intention is “to promote healthful eating.”

Buying locally means the produce will be very fresh.  Lettuce could find itself in the new HISD salad bars within 1 day of being picked.  Fresh picked produce tastes better and has more nutrients than produce that has to travel from other parts of the state or country.  Better taste could encourage students to make healthier choices in the lunch line more often.

Using fresh produce gives HISD the option to offer more raw food choices.  Salad bars are a great start, but what about offering fresh fruit in season?  This would be a better nutritional option than the standard processed fruits that contain added sugar and often artificial color.  Fresh fruit can be blended into smoothies with yogurt for breakfast.  Fruit salad can be eaten as is or mixed with yogurt for a luncheon side.  Whole fruits make a great side dish or dessert, such as locally grown peaches, pears, and bananas.

Other raw food options: chopped onions and tomatoes, sliced or cubed avocado, and chopped fresh herbs.  These make great toppings for soups, stews, meat dishes, baked potatoes, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc.  Offering these to students would increase the nutritional content of their meals.  Using fresh herbs in cold pasta dishes would add both flavor and nutrition.

I would like to see the figures for fresh produce offered as a percentage of the overall menu.  I’m guessing most of the foods in the cafeteria are cooked, processed, or both.  While this may be no different than what most children eat in their homes or bring for lunch, I think we can all agree that school lunches could use a taste and nutritional overhaul.  HISD’s interest in local produce is a step in that direction.

I also like the idea that the relationships with local farmers could lead to farm field trips and farmer guest speakers.  Children should learn more about how food is grown, where it is grown, and the people who grow it.  Urban children especially need to see food production as something tangible and important.  Too often, children have little understanding of where their food comes from and what role they can play as adults in providing for their own food needs.  As the conflict between conventional and organic farming becomes more prominent, and the role of nutrition in disease is better understood, all of us will need to be more active in protecting, promoting, and preserving our food supply and the farmers who grow it.  There is a potential need for many types of activism on this front, and children who understand how food grows will influence our future food supply, through their food choices, their gardening efforts, and their activism around food.  It is also possible that the fossil fuels we currently use to fertilize crops, to move food around, and to process foods may no longer be as practical or available for these uses in the future.  Children need food knowledge to resolve these issues and to provide for their own futures.

We live out in the suburbs, so I contacted our school district to ask how much local produce they buy.  I’m waiting for a response.  I urge you to make a call yourself.  I have read about a school vegetable garden in our district, and I have seen what looks like a possible vegetable garden at another school, so I also plan to ask about these efforts.  Maybe I’ll convince my daughter’s school to plant a garden this year.

Children can learn quite a bit from gardening, including how much work goes into food production.  I briefly list the benefits of this particular type of active learning in my post Growing Your Own.  Another benefit is an appreciation for plant foods that may change many children from vegetable dislikers to vegetable eaters.  A great book that shows children how to plant, grow, and cook food is Grow It, Cook It by Jill Bloomfield.  We made the Lemonade ice-pops yesterday.  Two other children’s books that show the process of growing food from seed to preparing what you’ve grown and eating it are: The Tortilla Factory by Gary Paulsen and by Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert.  My children love these books, but of course, we read them in Spanish: La Tortillería y A sembrar sopa de verduras.  We actually have the first edition of Erlert’s book, Cultivamos sopa de verduras, with a slightly different translation.  However, the new edition includes a soup recipe on the back cover!

For adult reading about local food, growing your own, and preserving your harvest, I recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  She writes about how her family lived for an entire year on food grown only by themselves or their neighbors.  Their story is informative, inspiring, and admirable.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver


  1. I like this a lot. I also like the idea of calling local school districts with respect to where they buy produce.

  2. Thanks, Sylvia. If only I could get a response. I may have to try again closer to the start of the school year. Stay tuned!


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