The farm-to-table movement has been instrumental in the quest to build a better food system, one in which both producers (farmers) and consumers (eaters) benefit personally, socially, and economically. The concept seems simple enough: grow something yummy as close as possible to where it is cooked or served. Why can’t kids just grow fruits and vegetables in the school garden to eat in the cafeteria, you might ask?
One way to bring the farm-to-table concept to school lunch is through a Garden-to-Cafeteria program. An ideal program collaboratively addresses the perceived barriers and engages all stakeholders in developing the safety protocols, pricing structures, crop oversight, and preparation processes necessary to serve fresh, real food.
Garden to Cafeteria is a program in which students grow, harvest and deliver fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables from a school garden to the cafeteria at the same school.~Slow Food USA Garden to Cafeteria Toolkit (2017)
Scale is the first surmountable barrier. To overcome this problem, it helps to do a little bit of math. The USDA guideline for a serving of fresh fruit or vegetables is 1/2 cup for children in grades K-5. Students are encouraged to consume two servings at lunch. Let’s say the average school size in CA is about 500 elementary school students. How much produce is that?
- 500 servings of grapes @ 12 grapes per cup = 6000 grapes (about 75 1-lb. bunches).
- 500 servings of carrots @ 2 medium carrots per cup = 1,000 carrots (about 175 bunches).
Few schools are equipped to grow that much produce for one meal, let alone for harvesting on a daily basis! Of course, there are some caveats: not all 500 students eat school lunch (more later about that one) and not all 500 take the recommended servings of one kind of fruit or vegetable (many schools have salad bars with 3-5 choices).
Looking more closely at these related factors reveals that some students are unfamiliar with fresh fruits and vegetables offered on the lunch line, so they may take the required serving but not eat it, which creates a different sort of challenge: food waste.
Food safety is another potential challenge. Any produce served in a commercial meal program is bound by certain procurement regulations. To ensure consumer protection, fruits and vegetables must be free from pathogens and grown and harvested in ways that avoid contaminants. No school food authority wants to be responsible for transmitting a deadly bacterial infection to students!
Many local authorities (e.g., health departments) in California have self-certification programs for small-scale producers to ensure a safe food supply by addressing good agricultural practices.
Finally, basic logistics of a Garden-to-Cafeteria program can be quite tricky. Even if a school garden safely produces enough of one or two items to serve, it takes a lot of extra work to plan, plant, tend, harvest, transport, and prepare them, not to mention measure the impact of doing so. When buying fruits and vegetables from a commercial vendor, the food service provider can expect a reliable, safe product delivered on time and packaged in the most convenient way (e.g., jicama sticks already uniformly cut or the just right sized apple).
Despite the challenges named above, a well-planned Garden-to-Cafeteria program can be successful if it is realistic about scale, safety, and logistics. Three key guidelines make Garden to Cafeteria work:
- Selecting an item to grow that has high yield, is somewhat familiar, and involves children can easily solve the problem of scale.
- Involving the local health department and following regulations for small producers can ensure confidence in school garden produce safety.
- Careful planning, community partnerships, and well-developed handling systems can make logistics seem surmountable.
Derived, in part, from the “fresh is best” mantra, the farm-to-table movement is slowly becoming more mainstream–for good reasons. The science confirms that the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables starts to wane soon after picking. Fresh off the vine also tastes better, which makes locally grown produce more appealing. Growing these items in school gardens, even if just once a year, can be a win for kids and communities alike!
When working toward a common goal of increasing children’s choice and consumption in the lunchroom, Garden to Cafeteria can make farm to table a reality for school lunch.
- Life Lab’s List of Policy and Protocols for School Gardens and Garden to Cafeteria
- Whole Kids Foundation Webinar Series: Build Your District’s Garden to Cafeteria Program
- Common Threads Farm Garden to Cafeteria Toolkit
- USDA Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program