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Bill aims to put more farm-fresh foods on school lunch menus
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Last updated 11:59 a.m. PT
By JENNIFER LANGSTON
Kia Kozun knew that lugging 40-pound boxes of vegetables single-handedly from a Sequim farm to a friend's bistro wasn't entirely sustainable.
The outreach manager for Nash's Organic Produce wanted to sell to school cafeterias. For five months, she borrowed a certified kitchen to shred cabbage and wash dirty lettuce.
Because of insurance and liability standards, the payments flowed through a maze of regional and national distributors, who all took a cut.
"No one says kids shouldn't have healthy food in schools, but what we're up against is a really huge industrial food system," said Kozun, who recently took a break from those time-sucking efforts to supply a school district five miles away.
Zoom Gilbert W. Arias / P-I
Eloina Najera stacks carrots harvested this month at Nash's Organic Produce in Sequim in Clallam County as co-worker Adam Mihalik tosses others onto a discard pile.
Legislation to be proposed in Olympia next week could catapult Washington to the forefront of national efforts to get more farm-fresh, locally grown food into lunches at schools and at other institutions. It borrows from piecemeal efforts in other states, but would go further.
Farm-to-school efforts are multiplying as parents worry about food safety, states look to cut greenhouse gases, and environmentalists try to preserve land by bolstering farm economies. There have been relatively few successes in Washington, which the proposed legislation aims to change.
"I don't think there's another state that's putting together such a comprehensive soup-to-nuts package," said Thomas Forster, policy director for the national Community Food Security Coalition.
Changes pending in the federal farm bill would clearly allow public schools to prefer local growers. In the past, the Agriculture Department has maintained that that kind of favoritism is illegal.
If the federal language passes, it would open to the door for states and local school districts to overhaul bidding and procurement rules that require government agencies to buy the cheapest food.
"School nutritionists should have the discretion to say, 'I want to buy these apples from Wenatchee; they're fresher and better for my kids,' without having to go through a bureaucratic nightmare or break the law," said Mo McBroom, policy director for the Washington Environmental Council.
The farm-to-school legislation is one of the environmental community's top four priorities in Olympia in 2008. It has attracted support from parents, public health employees, child advocates, state school nutritionists and some farmers.
But its passage isn't guaranteed. In a short session, the bill could get mired in questions such as how to define "locally grown" and how to allow preferences for Washington products without angering other states.
It also remains to be seen whether the Legislature will spend the $4 million that the groups are requesting in a tight budget year. School nutritionists are lobbying for an additional $4 million to allow low-income children who qualify for reduced-price lunches to eat free.
"We've all been focused on the environment, the health of kids and supporting small businesses, and I'm hoping that will be the right combo to jar loose some of the money," said Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, who is sponsoring the farm-to-school bill. "It may not be everything we want, but it's a starting point."
Eric Boutin, nutrition supervisor for the Auburn School District, visits farmers markets in his off hours. He waits until the lines go down, hands someone a card and asks about buying carrots or raspberries in the quantities he needs to serve 10,000 lunches. Most often, he never hears back.
"I've called or e-mailed every farm from our area, and it's a struggle ... to get that commitment," he said.
That's why the proposed legislation would fund two new employees in the state Agriculture Department to help connect schools and farms and wholesalers, and spread the word about what's seasonally available.
It would also spend $250,000 to research how farms might collaboratively market and distribute products. A community processing plant with proper insurance and food safety certifications could help small farmers crack new markets, for instance.
One of the biggest hurdles on the school side is funding, with food budgets of roughly $1 for each child's lunch.
The proposed bill would spend $2 million on grants enabling schools with large numbers of low-income students to serve more Washington fruits and vegetables as snacks.
The measure would also allow school nutrition directors and state agencies to buy meat, dairy products and produce from Washington without going through a bureaucratic process that forces them to accept the lowest bid.
But in Seattle, the school district has even stricter policies than the state's, requiring quotes for purchases over $15,000 and formal bids for anything over $50,000.
"It doesn't mean it couldn't be changed, but it would take some work," said Anita Finch, nutrition services director for Seattle Public Schools. "Bid laws are set up to make things competitive, so there's no little gentleman's or lady's agreements going on under the table."
McBroom, with the Washington Environmental Council, said the legislation would create a more flexible climate for schools, universities or prisons to take the initiative to support state agriculture. Much more work would be necessary.
But if the environmental community is serious about preserving farmland, it needs to do more than buy development rights and push land-use regulations, McBroom said.
"We want farmers to continue farming, not just because they can't build a condo on their farm -- which is something we want to prevent -- but also because it's profitable to remain in farming," she said.
Large farming interests say they support the farm-to-school bill in concept, but haven't seen the details. Their participation would boost its chances of success.
"One of the biggest detail devils is what is local -- that issue has been profound for at least 29 years that I know of," said Chris Cheney, a lobbyist who represents dairy farmers, poultry producers, hop growers and other agricultural interests.
The legislation currently defines "local" as anything planted, cultivated, harvested, raised or collected within the state.
Because some tree-fruit growers and dairies pool products with producers in Oregon or Idaho, it might make sense to broaden the incentives to food grown in the Northwest, Cheney said.
But small-scale, organic producers might prefer the definition of "local" to be narrowed. If the grant money can be spent on food grown anywhere in the state, schools are likely to go through wholesalers that draw from large Eastern Washington farms, they argue.
"Unless the food manager is someone who really wants to see that happen, a lot of them are going to say this is too much bother, and I'll just order through my distributor," said Steve Hallstrom, who grows organic lettuce and vegetables at Let Us Farm in Grays Harbor County.
Bill supporters say the most important thing is to establish a state farm-to-school program that can be expanded or tweaked in future years.
After battles that have historically pitted environmentalists against the state's agricultural powers, legislators hope such a program could help bridge that divide.
"It certainly is one of those win-wins if we can do it right," said Sen. Brian Hatfield, a Pacific County Democrat and a bill sponsor. "The conversations are taking place between our rural ag communities and the more urban environmental folks to say, 'Hey, we've got a lot in common here.' "
AT A GLANCE
Legislation proposed by the Washington Environmental Council would:
* Spend $2 million to get more Washington-grown fruits and vegetables into at least 75 schools serving low-income students.
* Hire two full-time employees in the state Agriculture Department to connect schools and growers.
* Spend $250,000 to research how farms could collectively process, package and distribute products in quantities that large cafeterias need.
* Allow schools to buy Washington-grown produce, meat and dairy products without formal bids, as long as prices don't "reasonably exceed" other choices.
* Adopt goals and policies encouraging state agencies, universities and schools to buy local food when available and comparable in price.
* Spend $830,000 to allow more low-income families and seniors to buy nutritious food at farmers markets.
* Spend nearly $1 million on a pilot program allowing food banks to buy from local farmers.
For more information, visit wecprotects.org/state/index.cfm.
State Rep. Christopher Hurst favors legislation requiring schools to include "carbon costs" when evaluating food bids. Factoring in environmental damage from greenhouses gases involved in shipping food could make local products "cheaper" than other options.
P-I reporter Jennifer Langston can be reached at 206-448-8130 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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