Healthy Food Findings Fall Short

Life in the Farm Lane

10/29/2013 5:27 AM

With much fanfare, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that more schools are participating in the agency’s Farm-to-School program, which allows schools to contract for more local foods.
At its surface, it sounds like a great idea – getting more healthy foods on the plates of our kids at school. Yet I have to ask, is it really making a difference?
As a mom, I am the first to admit that feeding my kids can be a bit of a challenge. As a show of independence, my boys will have “food wars,” suddenly deciding they don’t like a certain vegetable. Right now, the target is sweet potatoes. And I am sure in a couple of weeks there will be another “no-go” item for a time. But I keep serving it up, waiting until they decide it’s a winner again. And some times, all it takes is changing how I serve the dreaded veggie.
According to the first farm-to-school census provided by USDA during the 2011-12 school year, schools purchased more than $350 million in local food. And many of these schools were looking to purchase a higher volume in future years. For more information, click here. http://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDAOC/bulletins/90abf0
Vilsack was pleased with the results. “An investment in the health of America’s students through farm-to-school activities is also an investment in the health of local economies,” he said in a press release. “We know that when students have experiences such as tending a school garden or visiting a farm, they’ll be more likely to make healthy choices in the cafeteria.”
The survey also said 43 percent of public school districts reported having a farm-to-school program and another 13 percent that they are looking at starting one in the near future.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of opportunities for a new stream of farm income. I enjoy gardening and supporting my local farmers market. However, the idea of this program being a way to fix the healthy eating problem in this country is far-fetched. Good eating habits start at home. If there is not a culture at home to set up the habits, the school message is going to be hard to reinforce, especially if dinner at home includes a constant stream of fast food and take-out. It’s much easier to get my kids to eat a Happy Meal than cooked spaghetti squash.
The program works only if kids purchase a hot lunch at school. Packed lunches are at the discretion of the kids and their parents. A study by Virginia Tech evaluated the nutritional quality of lunches for a set of elementary students in Montgomery County, Va. The result: Packed lunches were higher in calories and saturated fat. Fruit and vegetable consumption was tricky for both sets because there was a high degree of food waste by children for fruit and vegetables on both sets of plates.
So, before we can celebrate change in schools, real change has to begin at home.

-- Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade, special sections editor


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