As Schools Buy More Local Food, Kids Throw Less Food In The Trash

Oct 20, 2015
Originally published on October 21, 2015 5:12 pm

More and more schools are trying to serve meals with food that was grown nearby. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released some statistics documenting the trend.

According to this "census" of farm-to-school programs, at least 42,000 schools spent almost $600 million on local food during the 2013-2014 school year. That's up almost 50 percent from the previous census, conducted two years earlier. (Both "censuses" were actually a questionnaire that the USDA sent to schools.)

The schools reported that when they served local food, their kids ate more healthful meals and threw less food in the trash.

Washington, D.C., is one of the school districts that has been promoting local food. That's one reason why, at 9 a.m. Tuesday, a truck arrived at DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that supplies meals to 10 schools in the city.

Amy Bachman, the organization's manager of procurement and sustainability, points to cases of broccoli, kale and sweet potatoes stacked in DCCK's cold room. The name "Kirby Farms" is stamped on each cardboard case. Kirby Farms is located in Mechanicsville, Va. It's two hours away, but that's close enough to be called "local."

Bachman has organized this shipment partly because there's a D.C. law that requires them to serve some local food, to support local businesses. But her organization also wants to do it.

"For us, it's also about getting kids to eat more, to get them to try food and get them interested in food," she says. And it helps to create a connection to food, she says, when they can tell a story about that meal: "Those sweet potatoes came from Kirby Farms! This was just down the road in Virginia!"

All across the country, you can find school districts doing similar things, for similar reasons.

"There's universal interest in this, and that's why we've seen dramatic increases in sales, and why we think there's still a lot of upside potential to this," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in an interview.

Bachman, at DCCK, says that in her experience, buying local food doesn't take more money, but it does take more time. "We're not buying just from one vendor," she says. "We work with 20 or 25 different farms."

Managing delivery schedules and matching growing seasons with menus takes a lot of planning and coordination.

This may be why local food still makes up only a small part (less than 20 percent) of the average school meal. Fewer than half of the school districts that responded to the USDA survey had any kind of local food program. (For more on why many schools struggle to source food locally, read Tracie McMillan's post from March.)

Even those in the new census that did promote local food spent, on average, only 20 percent of their dollars on produce that grew close by.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More schools are getting their students to be locavores; that is, more schools are serving meals with locally grown food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks this and says the higher numbers are good, that when schools make an effort to do this children eat better. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Around 9 o'clock this morning, a truck arrived at DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. It dropped off cases of vegetables that will end up on the lunch trays at 10 different schools around the city. Amy Bachman is in charge of buying that food.

AMY BACHMAN: Broccoli, kale and sweet potatoes, all from Kirby Farms.

CHARLES: Kirby farms is where?

BACHMAN: Kirby Farms is in Mechanicsville, Va.

CHARLES: That's two hours away but close enough to be called local. Bachman looks for local food partly because there's a D.C. law requiring them to serve it to help support local businesses. But also, her organization wants to do this.

BACHMAN: For us, it's also really about getting the kids to eat more and to get kids to want to try food and get kids interested in food.

CHARLES: It helps, she says, when they can tell a story about that meal.

BACHMAN: These sweet potatoes came from Kirby Farms and, you know, this was just down the road in Virginia and trying to get more of that connection involved.

CHARLES: All across the country, you can find school districts doing similar things for similar reasons. The USDA even has a farm-to-school program to support this trend. Here's Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

TOM VILSACK: There's universal interest in this and that's why we've seen dramatic increases in sales and why we think there's still a lot of upside potential for this.

CHARLES: The agency announced today that at last count, tens of thousands of schools spent $600 million on local food. That's up almost 50 percent from two years earlier. And the schools that bought local claim that their kids ate healthier meals and threw less food in the trash. Amy Bachman at DC Central Kitchen says in her experience buying local food does not take more money, but it does take more time.

BACHMAN: You're not buying just from one vendor. You're buying from - you know, we work with 20 to 25 different farms.

CHARLES: Managing all those different delivery schedules, matching produce and growing seasons with menus takes a lot of planning. That may be why local food still makes up only a small part of the average school meal. Fewer than half of the school districts that responded to the USDA survey have any kind of local food program. And many of those that do do not spend many of their food dollars on produce that grew close by. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.