Bill mandates more use of locally grown goods for school meals

By Cindy Brovsky
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Who knew Popeye’s favorite snack is growing in Colorado’s high country.

“Spinach is grown in Leadville because there are no bugs at 10,000 feet,” said Leo Lesh, director of food and nutrition for Denver Public Schools. “You also can get potatoes grown in Colorado year-round.”

Lesh helped write the “Farm-To-School Healthy Kids Act,” which would create a task force to help farmers and school districts provide more locally grown products for school meals. The bill sponsored by Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver, and retired teacher Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, is similar to programs nationwide.

“Right now, it’s pretty hit-or-miss with Colorado school districts trying to get locally produced items,” said Lesh. “The task force would study how to get farmers in touch with school districts and visa versa, about what is grown in Colorado and work out such issues as transportation and food safety.”

DPS already uses about 25 percent of locally produced items, including milk and salad, in its nearly 54,000 breakfast and lunches daily. But Lesh said that percentage could be increased through the task force’s efforts.

“It’s good for the students, the school districts and the state’s economy,” Lesh said. “Why should we buy something grown in California when we can spend the money in Colorado?”

The 12-member task force would sunset in 2013 after policies and guidelines are developed. Members would include representatives with experience in agriculture and school nutrition, the Colorado Department of Education, Department of Agriculture and Department of Public Health and Environment.

The task force would look at funding sources to offset increased costs of using locally raised products, train farmers and ranchers to enable them to sell their products to schools and assist food services to get more locally raised products in school meals, according to the bill.

Linda Stoll, executive director of Jefferson County Schools Food Service, worked in food service for 21 years in Alaska. The school district there, with the help of the school board president who also was the commissioner of agriculture, built a vegetable processing plant to use more Alaska-grown carrots and potatoes.

Stoll supports the bill especially if a computerized system could be set up to purchase the items.

“It would be great for me to be able to go on line and see how many cantaloupes were available from Rocky Ford growers,” she said. “We don’t have good connections with local farmers. I tried a few times but it was not successful.”

Needing to purchase in bulk could be a hurdle for larger school districts, Stoll said. Jefferson County Schools prepare more than six million meals a year.

“Ideally, it would be wonderful a year in advance to have a Colorado grower say they could come up with 47,000 pounds of tomatoes,” she said. “JeffCo is so big that asking one local grower to meet the supply is a lot.”

Farmers also must be willing to transport their items to the school district, Stoll said.

“If I buy peaches or pears from farmers on the Western Slope, they’ll need to get the fruit to our warehouse,” she said.

Additionally, the district often buys prepackaged cut vegetables because there’s not enough staff to do the food preparation, Stoll said. “I don’t just want potatoes,” she said. “I want them peeled and cut.”

Another issue is that the United States Department of Agriculture requires school districts to get competitive bids with no consideration for local bids, she said.

“Unless local bids are less, our hands are a little bit tied,” Stoll said.

The $30.5 million food service program in DPS is self-funded by food sales, so budget concerns are an issue, Lesh said.

“But we can’t assume buying locally is going to be more expensive,” he said. “That’s why we need the task force to get more figures. “

Boulder Valley District began adding more fresh foods and vegetables to its school menus last year, said Ann Cooper, interim director of nutrition services. Cooper, who called chocolate milk “soda in drag,” came under fire last year when the district banned chocolate milk from the schools.

But the new menus have gotten good reviews from the students and parents, she said.

“We already buy a lot of products locally,” Cooper said. “In the early fall we got local apples and potatoes.”

The cost of fresh fruit can be higher than buying frozen fruit, Cooper said.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about what’s on the plate for the student,” she said.

Cindy@coloradostatesman.com