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Why Some Schools Serve Local Food And Others Can't (Or Won't)

A lunch served by the Yarmouth, Me., School Department on Sept. 26, 2014, featured Sloppy Joe's made with Maine beef and local beets, carrots, apples and potato salad. More than 80 percent of Maine schools said they served local foods in a survey conducted by the USDA.

For many years, if a public school district wanted to serve students apples or milk from local farmers, it could face all kinds of hurdles. Schools were locked into strict contracts with distributors, few of whom saw any reason to start bringing in local products. Those contracts also often precluded schools from working directly with local farmers.

But buying local got easier with federal legislation in 2008, and then again in 2010, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Farm to School program to get more healthful food in schools and link smaller U.S. farmers with a steady market of lunch rooms.

A new survey of schools and their local food purchases offers a bit of a progress report on the program. During the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, the survey found, 36 percent of U.S. school lunchrooms were feeding kids food from local producers: things like carrots and peaches, all from nearby.

Surprisingly, school districts in Big Ag states like California or Washington weren't serving the most local food for lunch. That distinction belongs to handful of schools in the northeast—Maine, Vermont, Maryland and Delaware.

Why them? Some of those states have focused heavily on building local food economies, and their small size, arguably, has made it easier for local food to gain market share.

Even schools that go local, though, aren't serving up plates likely to pass a locavore test. On average, only about 13 percent of the food budgets at schools serving local food actually went to stuff that was grown nearby.

Still, "interest in local foods is pretty high," says Katherine Ralston, an agricultural economist at USDA. And the amount of local food served "was higher than we expected."

So what happened with the other 67 percent of schools who weren't serving local food?

While nine percent of all schools said they plan to incorporate local food at lunch soon, fully half simply don't do so at all: 38 percent neither serve nor teach about local food, and another 12 percent don't serve local food but do take part in other local food efforts, like school gardens. (The last six percent of schools, curiously, reported they didn't know whether they use local food or not.)

And the reasons why, says, Ralston, are surprising.

"It's not a supply problem," says Ralston. Indeed, more than three-quarters of schools serving local food got it through a regular distribution channel—think Sysco—instead of having to contract directly with individual producers.

Nor is it a problem of cost, at least not initially. Only one-third of schools who've yet to jump on the local bandwagon said prices were an issue, while more than half of local-food schools cited noted cost.

The biggest barriers to going local, says Ralston — especially for a school that wants to but hasn't — lie in the details: contract requirements, paperwork and a difference in the scale of need at the school and production on the farm.

"They can get supply— but they can't get supply that meets requirements" for cooking and serving, she says. One example: A school wants to serve baby carrots, but the local farmer only has regular carrots and the school doesn't have equipment and staff on hand to at least cut the big ones into manageable sizes for kids. Or the grower that wants to sell to the school doesn't have the proper insurance. Or the grower can't produce enough for the giant school district and it's too much of a hassle to contract with separate growers for each school.

For schools just assessing the option, though, local food faces the same battle that it does elsewhere in American food culture. Schools worry that local products won't be available and that demanding them will create headaches down the road. And then there's the problem of "year-round availability of key items" — it was a worry for the two-thirds of schools who haven't yet gone local and for 82 percent of those who had.

The takeaway, says Ralston, is two-fold. One, the annual farm-to-school census still needs tweaks, like asking whether schools serving local food use corporate distributors or local food hubs (many of which have USDA backing).

And second: For schools, she says, the news is pretty good: "It is getting a lot easier to get locally sourced products."

Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating, a New York Times bestseller, and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. You can follow her on Twitter @tmmcmillan.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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