Long Name, Amazing Results: USDA Legislation Gets Local Produce into Schools
Gorgeous fall this year, don’t you think? It must have been that cold snap a few weeks ago that splashed our deciduous trees with an amazing palette of color! While the visual scenery is beautiful and soothing, those of you who raise a vegetable garden know that the fall season sends you to the garden with a bittersweet attitude.
With the shorter and cooler days, the tomatoes are the most changed: once irresistibly tempting, now they no longer ripen fully on the draping foliage, stalks and leaves once lushly green now turning yellow and brown. The other varieties of tomato seem to sustain more damage before they’re ready: water spots, bug bites, evidence of hungry jays foraging at dawn and dusk. The green beans are really giving up for the season, the onions are all picked. A few ready peppers and eggplants can still be found, and the beets have kept slowly growing and waiting underground.
While my garden work winds down, however, our local farmers have planned well for a special harvest this fall. Last year at this time, farmers were well aware of an impending federal pilot program that is now fully under way. Last December the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) selected eight states, one of them Oregon, to participate in the Pilot Project for Procurement of Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables, a little known part of the behemoth Farm Bill. The name is a mouthful, but the reality is an incredible windfall for the well-being of our local farms and the health of Rogue Valley and other Oregon children.
Background information is that the USDA routinely provides foods of varying quality for foods to use in their cafeteria programs. These are often surplus foods, or other “foodstuffs” that can be easily warehoused and transported long distances. Reflecting a huge shift in priorities, the current Pilot Project directs actual cash buying power to participating school districts for them to—you might need to sit down for this—to buy local fruits and vegetables, what a concept!
So yes, last year, local farmers had to plan their 2015 gardens so that suitable school produce would be available this year for the project, and it’s working! Rogue Valley kids are tasting local pears and sampling local vegetables, and it’s thanks to the USDA and several key players locally who have helped make this program a reality. Rogue Valley Farm to School (RVF2S) has been delighted to expand their usual procurement responsibilities and bring foods like mini sweet bell peppers, tomatoes, melons and cucumbers to schools this fall. Real life fresh and local taste treats!
Now you may have been dissuaded by some newspaper stories recently that claim schoolkids don’t eat fruits and vegetables when they’re offered. It seems that some cafeteria observers have noted that fresh produce makes a fairly uninterrupted voyage from salad bar to student plate to trash without even a taste. Luckily, we have some local programs that wisely introduce students to foods they may not know and change the garbage trend. Rogue Valley Farm to School offers both Harvest Meals, where classrooms visit farms and are able to harvest, prepare and enjoy farm-based meals, and Tasting Tables, in which Farm to School volunteers offer school cafeterias various tastings of the vegetable of the month, allowing students to choose their favorite version of, for instance, kale!
A new program has just arrived in the valley. Please let me know if you get a chance to see The Food Fairy, who offers healthy eating encouragement for private parties as well as festivals and schools.
But there is a bottom line to all of this and it relates to the lives we have created for our school children, starting from school start time, to long days without outdoor breaks, and culminating in homework overload and shortened sleep times. A new study from Harvard adds short lunch hours to the problem with student schedules. During short lunch periods, students are less likely to pick up and eat fresh produce from the lunch line. When students are given 25 minutes for lunch (I had an hour when I was a kid, how about you?), they are more likely to eat their lunch, and include some fresh produce as part of the lunch.
A good reminder for all of us: as we gather the last of our summer’s produce, let’s sit down together for a leisurely meal and enjoy a taste of everything that grows in our lush Rogue Valley gardens.
Read more of Dr. Deborah’s healthy insights at www.DrDeborahMD.com.