Plated on a three-by-three dish sits lukewarm gruel—in the opposite corner, salty slop. This exaggerated showdown of cafeteria food (though not far off) dueled for a place in your stomach as a child during lunch, but most likely the food ended up in the trash. Schools throughout the country, and in Franklin County, are changing what school lunches mean to their students—and sourcing locally in the process.

The paradigm is shifting in an era when locally sourced foods are shedding their cost-and-time stigma and becoming viable alternatives in a marketplace traditionally run by food service providers with efficiency and profit in mind.

Mike Hogan, an associate professor at the Ohio State College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, recently moved to Franklin County and works firsthand with the Farm to School initiative, a program dedicated to bringing together local food suppliers and schools.

For many school districts, the upside of locally sourced food is finally tipping the scales against processed rivals.

“The benefits are myriad,” Hogan said. “[Local foods] improve nutritional content, there’s more fresh whole fruits and vegetables, they’re less processed, and there’s an impact on the bottom line.”

The Farm to School program really took off in 2010, when the Child Nutrition Reauthorization section of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 provided grant money to the National Farm to School Network. Since then, schools across the nation have been able to seek grants to support locality in their district.

“I’m hopeful and excited for the next generation that is getting healthier, better school lunches and breakfasts.”

In nearby Licking County, Reynoldsburg School District received a $42,197 grant to fund a garden-to-cafeteria program, where food grown in a community garden will be used in the meals of several educational providers. In years past, the Zenith Academy, a charter school in Franklin County, and the Ohio School for the Deaf have both received grants from the state.

These grants may make local farmers’ products more attractive to schools, especially with many food operation services burdened with deficits. With Farm to School, institutions could finally start seeing a profit. More students and faculty will buy cafeteria-produced foods, Hogan said, opening the door to other programs that seek out the cafeteria to produce meals for after-school programs and school-related events. Imagine: a time where people actually want to eat cafeteria food. It’s a lunchlady utopia.

A fully functioning Farm to School relationship may never be perfect, as schools often have to source nationally to find foods to fit their budget and resources. Some schools do not have kitchen equipment to make scratch foods, just warming stations to heat frozen meals. But Hogan advises schools not to fret, as local is ever-changing. The word “local” is a flexible term pertaining to schools, where local could span from a dairy farmer in a neighboring county to a vegetable producer three states away. The flexibility accommodates a school’s willingness to break the conventional food service cycle by formulating healthier, fresher foods compared to previous standards.

For Bryn Bird, a farmer in Licking County, schools are often hesitant to take a step toward sourcing locally, seeing it as a task too time-consuming to take on. But for Granville Schools, a district Bird works with directly, a shot in the dark ignited in a fully-fledged school program.

“Granville went for it,” Bird said. “They started small and didn’t worry about anything. They started with lettuce and then moved to broccoli and lots of winter crops. They were brave to start doing it.” 

Carol Smathers, the Farm to School state lead for OSU Extension, sides with the actions taken by Granville, which has spilled over into schools in Franklin County. By just starting with one food item from the area, such as apples during a fall harvest, schools are more enticed to try local foods.

“Schools meals are getting better because of Farm to School,” Smathers said. “It’s just amazing to see the quality of how good food can look and taste.”  Districts can also educate their students on where food comes from and the varieties of how it is served, done through a taste-testing model or farm field trips that are proving to work for a group with a reputation as finicky eaters.

Smathers has mentioned the idea of Farm to School programs in Columbus City Schools, the largest in the county, and Bird is in continuing talks with Westerville Schools to implement some sort of locally sourced product, perhaps cherry tomatoes in their salad bars. With workshops and relationships growing between farmers and cafeterias, it seems as if schools in Ohio are discovering the tip of the iceberg (not lettuce).

“I’m hopeful and excited for the next generation that is getting healthier, better school lunches and breakfasts that will raise more people dedicated to the local food movement,” Smathers said.

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