Growers wanted

Schools seek more local food to fight childhood obesity

A new progress report on farm-to-school food programs, released December 19, indicates that more than one-third of children in San Diego are overweight or obese. For many children, eating a lot of processed foods means they eat fewer whole foods, which can affect learning.

The report is a joint effort of San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative and San Diego County Farm to School Taskforce, of which the San Diego Unified School District is a member.

“San Diego Unified has been a pioneer in farm-to-school,” says Kathryn Spencer, who works in food services. She and a colleague procure local foods, provide nutrition education, and fight old ideas about school meals being “gross and unhealthy” by promoting items like a ranch-dressing alternative a local company tailored to their needs. The districts serve breakfast, lunch, and, increasingly, supper.

“We feature a different item from a local farm each month, so any given school year we work with 10 to 12 farms,” says Spencer.

Yet, the four-year-old program still faces “major obstacles,” including the ability to source local foods, the report finds. That’s not uncommon around the country, but San Diego has year-round growing conditions and more small farms less than ten acres than anywhere in the U.S., according to the Farm Bureau.

In fact, San Diego growers produce more than $560 million per year of fruits and vegetables suitable for the school market, the report says. These include three of the top five produce items schools buy (apples, lettuce, oranges, tomatoes, bananas). The “vast majority” of it leaves the county. Every day, schools serve over 300,000 meals — much of the food trucked or flown in from afar; meanwhile, San Diego-grown fruits and vegetables hit the road — and skies.

“Local produce is exported to a number of different markets,” says JuliAnna Arnett, the director of operations and food systems for the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative and the task force facilitator. San Diego foods get shipped to local packing houses and to the L.A. Terminal market, she says. They may then be distributed to international or domestic markets. “Since San Diego is a large producer of high-end organics, much of this also leaves the county.”

The report, the 2014 State of Farm to School in San Diego County, discusses the area’s great potential, enthusiasm for local foods, and the progress schools made.

In 2010, when the program began, only one of the county’s 42 districts had defined “local.” Now, 27 districts have adopted the task force’s “multi-tiered” definition of the term, which has no federal standard. The freshest food, in the task force’s definition of local, is grown or raised in the county. Then there’s regional; produced within 250 miles of the county line and inside California. The broadest view of local food, often used by large grocery stores, spans the state. The report says few districts knew how often they served San Diego foods, with many others “unable to report the frequency of any local purchases.”

However, ten districts bought over $3 million in local food, which Spencer says is procured with no special funding.

“We do not dip into the district’s general fund,” says Spencer. All school meals are reimbursed with federal and state funds, with amounts based on whether students qualify for a free or reduced price.

Their milk comes from dairies near Hemet, while citrus often comes from San Diego orchards, Spencer says. Last November, they bought up Sahu Subtropicals’ organic Fuyu persimmons. (“We took their entire crop.”) That worked well for both parties, but such demand for one crop can be too high for some farms. So they prefer farms growing foods “that can be served on our salad bars, who can meet our demand.”

For smaller districts, the problem is reversed. Arnett says one big issue has been ordering needs “too small to be economically viable for growers,” accounting for distribution. “It has been easiest for medium-sized growers to participate.”

Small farms do participate, but many already have markets, Arnett says. While several districts and distributors have begun to forage San Diego products, most growers aren’t ready for the institutional market, such as schools and hospitals. Arnett says using growers' co-ops to collect and distribute crops from multiple growers would help.

“We hope to see more growers collectively aggregate like product. This could significantly increase opportunities for smaller growers.”

For schools, the biggest hurdle is getting information about what’s available, Arnett says. A few produce distributors have begun to label and promote local products, but they need to be more widely available and easy to identify.

This year, the task force will explore how the San Diego Grown Exchange, a website built by the San Diego Farm Bureau, might be “retrofitted” for farm-to-school sales. It now connects local produce sellers and buyers but doesn’t allow for sales or distribution. A lot more needs to be done to help farmers navigate the school market, Arnett says — “but we also need more growers.”

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My guess is that the cost to volunteer property lots or dirt is greater than most can afford. Growing in pots should be taught for home, blueberries like that. New trend with less space required is hydroponic gardening (I understand greens like). See KPBS instruction videos, plus others.

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