Food service directors, district officials and farmers are gathering at a conference in Pittsburgh today to talk about getting more locally grown produce into cafeterias. Schools around the country are now required to offer fruits and vegetables.
But it can be a challenge to get kids to actually eat the healthier items. Schools that are having success in the cafeteria say they’re making food part of the regular curriculum.
At the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh third graders learn to plant seeds in small containers filled with dirt. On this day they are planting sunflower seeds, but in front of the school there are 12 raised garden beds, each half the size of a parking space.
Nine-year olds Oliver Stephany and Elwin Rathelot said in the past, they’ve grown things to eat: lettuce, tomatoes and cauliflower.
“The cauliflower had a lot of bugs in it, so, that’s why I didn’t eat it,” Stephany said.
“I didn’t mind,” Rathelot said, “because bugs are protein.”
Kelsey Weisgerber, the school’s food service director, is excited about the local food movement.
She said how food is grown, whether it’s from the school garden, a local farm, or across the country, is part of the natural environment, and part of the school’s curriculum.
Weisgerber has been working to get more food from local farms served in the cafeteria. But there have been setbacks. The Ohio farm she was working with decided to take a break in the middle of the school year.
“I was kind of excited,” she said, “because this was going to be our pilot year with them, and we were going to see how much we bought, and then he was going to base his crop growth for the following season off of our menu, which was huge and really exciting. And to not have that is a bummer.”
Weisgerber has found another farm to provide some produce. But like other schools she still needs a middleman, to get a stable supply of produce.
That’s where Paragon Foods comes in.
Company spokesman Shane Hall said farmers deliver milk, meat and produce directly to them. He said as farms get bigger, it can be challenging for them to get their products to market.
“So if they’re selling to 25 or 30 customers, they’re going to spend days driving around delivering,” he said. “So that’s where we come in. They can bring hundreds of cases here and we’ll bring it out to all the customers for them. So it’s one drop, they save time, they save fuel, which in essence saves money.”
Paragon works with farms in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, and delivers to schools, restaurants, and others from Cleveland to Erie to Harrisburg. Many are interested in buying local.
But there aren’t enough of these local tomatoes for all the schools and other institutions that want them, so Paragon supplements with tomatoes from Florida.
Tazeen Chowdhury is used to that. She’s the food service director for the Mt. Lebanon School District, which buys some of its produce through Paragon.
Five years ago, Chowdhury started a food program in Mt. Lebanon’s elementary schools. She said every day they offer a large variety of fruits and vegetables — apples, carrots, even lentil salads. And some of the local produce, such as kale, has been a surprising hit. Last month they offered baked kale chips.
“We thought, well, we don’t know if they’re going to eat it or not, but let’s just give it a try,” she said. “And we just kept increasing more and more of the amounts because we were going through so much of it. “
Last year, new national school food standards went into effect, and there was a huge outcry by districts and students around the country. It costs districts more money, and students claimed they weren’t being served enough food. But much of the produce was being thrown away.
Chowdhury said that’s been less of a problem at Mt. Lebanon because the students are taught about healthy eating in the classroom, and offered healthy foods in the cafeteria.
“We’ve been really pushing our fruits and vegetables,” she said, “and it takes time to change eating habits in students.”
At this point, Mt. Lebanon still relies on a national food distributor for most of its food purchases, in addition to Paragon. Chowdhury said there’s just not enough locally-produced, low priced food to fully supply the district year round.
Julie Grant is a reporter with The Allegheny Front which is broadcast Saturdays at 7:30 am on 90.5 WESA