School Garden Produce: Not Fit for Student Consumption?

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A school garden can be a wonderful outdoor classroom. Children can learn a variety of subjects while working with others to grow their own food. But in some school districts the children have the gardens to grow the food, but are forbidden from eating it in their lunchrooms.

When I first read that the Chicago Public Schools are not able to use the produce grown in their more than 40 school gardens in the lunchroom, I was shocked. Why grow it if you can't consume it? The truth is that due to rules set by the district and its meal provider the food must be either given away, sent home with students, or sold.

"In order to use food in the school food program, it would need to meet specific/certified growing practices," CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond said.

These requirements would include eliminating all "pesticides and insecticide" applications and using only "commercially prepared organic compost and fertilizers," said Bob Bloomer, regional vice president of Chartwells-Thompson.

Commercial vendors, though, don't have to abide by these rules. They can sell the district produce treated with several pesticides and grown in nonorganic fertilizer.

But produce grown by the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences on its 25-acre farm wouldn't make the grade because, for example, it treats its corn with a single pesticide.

The school district touts using some local produce in its lunch program, but the produce that is most local of all -- grown right outside their doors -- is off limits. Children are being denied the most local and fresh produce of all. How does that make any sense?

According to the CDC, more than one-third of U.S. adults (over 72 million people) and 17% of U.S. children are obese. For Chicago children ages 6-11, the obesity rate is 28%. So in an area where more and more children are overweight or obese and, as evidenced in Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, some American first graders can't identify vegetables, the system is denying them healthy, local food.

Unfortunately, this is happening other school districts as well. Sybil who blogs at Musings of a Milk Maker told me on Facebook that this is also the case at the public school she is trying to get her daughter into.

Andrea Ward isn't surprised by any of this. She had this to say on Facebook, "Lunch food is a big time business with big time rules and greed. Education is never about the kids (unless you are the one in the trenches--then that's all you care about). Otherwise, it's about politics. And politics is about money."

However, other school districts across the country, such as Auburn School District in Washington state, have been able to adopt a garden to cafeteria plan. The school district's 1 1/2 acre organic garden and orchard produces "fruits and vegetables for student lunches and snacks in 10 elementary schools. In addition to garden produce, the Auburn School District purchases from local farmers for all 22 schools." This single garden produces food for all elementary schools during the growing and harvesting seasons.

Joanne White who blogs at Media Mum told me about her son's elementary school in the Boulder Valley School District, Colo., where the school garden provides produce for its own salad bar. Joanne said, "The kids are fully involved from garden to table. No way Jamie Oliver would find any of them not knowing what a tomato is!"

In other school districts, the students eat what they grow, but not necessarily in the lunchroom, however not for the same reasons that the Chicago Public School District gave.

Karen from Eternal Maternal said her son participated in a school garden program at his elementary school located in Vancouver School District in Washington State. The children ate what they grew, but due to a variety of reasons including not enough of any one ingredient, lack of preparation time, etc., the produce was not used in the school cafeteria. Karen said, "I think it’s very important that kids learn where their food comes from and what it takes to get it to the point that it can be eaten. Providing food for oneself is a basic need. Typically, we don’t have to do it for ourselves until we’re in college and what do we do then? Go to the grocery store and buy a case of Ramen. When children learn to grow food that can sustain themselves, even if only partially, it gives them a sense of accomplishment, raises their awareness of the environment and, whether they realize it or not, raises their level of security because it’s a way they know of to care for themselves."

At Stylin Momma Katy's daughter's charter elementary school in Maryland, all of the children participate in the school garden in one way or another. Her daughter is in kindergarten where they are in charge of pollination. The garden food is not used in the school cafeteria food (which is brought in) and most students bring lunches from home. However, Katy said, "they will sometimes have a sampling station in the lunchroom where the kids can try the foods picked from the garden, or they will use it in cooking class. They also have a school produce stand as a fundraiser."

After hearing about the practices of different school districts, I have to say I find the reasoning behind Chicago Public School District's ban on garden food in the lunchroom appalling. I have to agree with Andrea above who said, "it's about politics. And politics is about money." If the district had these kids' best interests at heart, they would find a way to allow the locally grown garden food into the cafeterias.

Despite all of this, I am pleased to hear that many districts -- especially inner-city districts like Chicago -- have implemented school gardens. Perhaps even if the children are not allowed to eat the food in the lunchroom, they still are learning the valuable life lesson of how to grow it and perhaps are able to take some of it home to their families to enjoy.

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Photo credit: Flickr StevenDePolo


Contributing editor Amy Gates writes at Crunchy Domestic Goddess and is on Twitter @crunchygoddess.

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