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Lunch lessons learned for the longterm: D.C. farm to school program brings local foods to local schools

The phrase “school lunch” may be more likely to bring to mind visions of artificial nacho cheese and processed foods than fresh vegetables. But in Washington D.C., D.C. Farm to School Network is trying to change that by connecting school cafeterias with local farms and educating students about gardening and cooking with fresh produce.

Students prepare dishes featuring local apples at D.C. Farm to School Networks Tuesday event celebrating healthy eating as part of a sound education. (Photo credit: Dan Kane)Students prepare dishes featuring local apples at D.C. Farm to School Networks Tuesday event celebrating healthy eating as part of a sound education. (Photo credit: Dan Kane)

Started as an initiative of the Capital Area Food Bank, D.C. Farm to School Network is a coalition of teachers, administrators, farmers, chefs, and organizations interested in providing healthy, sustainable food to school children and providing local farmers with a reliable market. By getting fresh fruit and vegetables into cafeterias, as well as creating educational experiences for students, like building school gardens and field trips to farms, D.C. Farm to School Network is working to instill healthy habits in the district’s schoolchildren.

Last Tuesday, October 12, Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School (TMA) and Savoy Elementary in Anacostia, Washington D.C. hosted a kickoff event to celebrate D.C. Farm to School Week, D.C. School Garden Week, and National School Lunch Week, where the theme was healthy eating as part of a sound education.

The event included a lineup of speakers, including USDA Deputy Secretary Dr. Kathleen Merrigan and Sam Kass, the White House Executive Chef who’s well-known for helping First Lady, Michelle Obama, start the White House vegetable garden. Kass spoke to students about the importance of eating right to succeed, telling the crowd of students, “To get to college, there are a few other things you have to take care of first. In order to be successful, you need to be healthy first.”

Following the speakers, four local chefs, assisted by TMA students as their sous chefs, prepared dishes featuring local apples that students then voted on. The winner was an apple and cranberry crisp by Chef Tee of Station 9; and the prize- next month the crisp will be served in cafeterias throughout the D.C. public school system.

Next was a tour of the school garden built this summer by a group of students led by Mr. Sam Ullery, TMA’s earth science teacher, with support from the Earth Day Network’s Green Schools Campaign. Featuring apple trees, composting bins, a tool shed, and a greenhouse, the garden is a place to learn about environmental science and gardening, as well as an outdoor learning space for other classes, including Spanish and music.

Over the course of D.C. Farm to School Week, several schools around the district will be hosting classes with chefs and nutritionists, and students will be taking field trips to area farms. “The trips are a farm-to-table experience, and a lot of these students don’t get that chance often,” said Andrea Northup, D.C. Farm to School Network coordinator. “When they get to harvest that food, bring it home, and cook it, they’re more likely to keep eating healthy food.”

Students plant sage in Thurgood Marshall Academy and Savoy Elementary's garden, built this summer as a place to study environmental science and grow vegetables for the school and local markets. (Photo credit: Dan Kane)Students plant sage in Thurgood Marshall Academy and Savoy Elementary's garden, built this summer as a place to study environmental science and grow vegetables for the school and local markets. (Photo credit: Dan Kane)

And making sure students eat healthy is an important goal. Research shows that typical health problems related to poor nutrition, such as obesity and anemia, significantly lower academic performance and attendance in elementary school students. In addition, scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that undernourishment and unbalanced diets, such as those high in fat or simple carbohydrates, hinder a student’s ability to focus.

Over 30 million US schoolchildren are on the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. Ensuring their meals are nutritious could improve attendance, behavior, and academic performance.

As part of our research for Nourishing the Planet, we have come across several similar initiatives to feed school children and support the local economy across Africa. The Home Grown School Feeding (HGSF) program, started by the UN World Food Programme and the Partnership for Child Development, is working in Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Mali, Kenya, and Ghana to connect local farmers with schools, ensuring schoolchildren attend school by providing them with much-needed meals and giving farmers a reliable market. And programs like Farmers of the Future in Niger and Developing Innovations for School Cultivation (DISC) in Uganda have helped several schools install gardens where students can learn about gardening and healthy foods while providing extra food to their schools and communities.

These types of programs create a healthier, more productive school environment and encourage students to be better eaters more interested in their food and where it comes from.

Dan Kane is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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