It turns out that kids can actually tell when food tastes good. Portland Public Schools, which feeds roughly 20,000 students a day, launched “Harvest of the Month” in 2007, featuring an Oregon-grown fruit or vegetable on the menu twice a month. Today, 32% of the food served in Portland cafeterias is regionally sourced—and nutrition services director Gitta Grether-Sweeney plans on increasing it even more with the help of two recent grants, one from the USDA. This is a typical meal of homemade pizza with whole-wheat crust (made from wheat harvested by Shepherd’s Grain cooperative in Washington), multi-hued cauliflower (this year from a farm in Northern California), and a Hood River pear.
School cafeteria food gets a bad rap. But the truth is, as the national farm to school movement has taken off over the past few years, schools have begun sourcing the sort of high-quality ingredients you see at your local farmers’ market. At public school lunch rooms around the country, it’s now possible to taste dishes like shrimp cocktail (with homemade cocktail sauce), grass-fed burgers with roasted potatoes, and burrito bowls with local veggies and antibiotic-free chicken. Realizing how vital farm-to-school programs are to local economies, state governments from Alaska to Texas are encouraging regional purchasing, in some cases doling out grants to districts that want to buy more local and regional food.
The Obama administration has stepped up its support, hiring a director of farm-to-school at the United States Department of Agriculture and, last fall, allocating $4.5 million in grants to 68 projects that connect school cafeterias with local agricultural producers. In fact, according to just-released Census figures from the USDA, 38,629 schools across the U.S. are buying local food and teaching kids where their food comes from. And then there are nonprofits like FoodCorps, which deploys idealistic young service members—125 of them at last count—to 15 states to teach kids about healthy food, instruct them in gardening and cooking, and help school food directors get more local food into schools (including, sometimes, the very produce kids grow themselves).
Since October is National Farm to School Month, we decided to showcase some of the yummiest locally sourced cafeteria meals out there. We bet you’ll take a second look at your kid’s cafeteria—and maybe even join her for lunch some day soon.