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Congress: Don’t Be Tardy on Farm to SchoolPrint

Food & Farming | June 1, 2010 | By Diane Conners

Betti Wiggins, operations manager for food service in Detroit Public Schools, is determined to serve more Michigan-grown fresh fruits and vegetables to the 52,000 kids she feeds at lunchtime each day. But, as the Institute of Medicine noted last fall, she and other schools need more money to do that. Wiggins’ budget allows for only $1.18 per meal, or about what you’d pay for a half cup of gourmet coffee.

Congress needs to know about Ms. Wiggins, and about the 700 people who packed a big event, called Taking Root: 5th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, in Detroit last week. They’re part of a growing trend, literally in every state, to get healthy, farm-fresh food to school kids while also investing in the economic well-being of local communities.

The Child Nutrition Act-which supports school lunches-is up for renewal. But, after a lot of hard work and unanimous passage by the Senate Agriculture Committee, we 700 learned last week that it’s in danger of being held up for at least a year because the spotlight is on immigration, energy, and the Supreme Court.

Michigan could be key to making sure the act-with increased funding for school food-ranks high on that crucial list, rather than being buried by it.

Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow, a member of the agriculture committee, and Carl Levin signed a letter urging their colleagues to act swiftly on the bill in the Senate, (where it is called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010) Now, however, the House must take up the measure in its Education and Labor Committee, which includes three Michigan representatives: Dale KildeePete Hoekstra, and Vernon Ehlers. And Michigan Congressman Sander Levin, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, is pivotal.

Rep. Levin can help hammer out any funding conflicts with the Senate version. He and the education committee members need to hear citizen support for fully funding the Child Nutrition Act at the $1 billion a year the Obama administration proposes, and that it includes $10 million a year for grants to help schools build strong “farm to school” programs. It takes time, work, and money to build those programs, from forming business relationships with farmers to installing equipment so cooks can prepare more fresh, seasonal food from scratch.

“Farm to school is a new paradigm,” Ms. Wiggins said. “We need best practices and training. We need new equipment. We need time to plan.”

Ms. Wiggins, who served Michigan asparagus to her schools’ kids last week, is working with D-Town Farm. The two-acre urban farm, run by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, is growing 8,000 pounds of cherry tomatoes, green zucchini, and yellow squash for her kids.

That kind of local economic boost is common to farm to school programs. A study of two Oregon programs, for example, showed that each dollar schools spent on locally grown food generated an additional 87 cents in local economic activity.

The ultimate issue here is children’s health. The number of children ages 6-11 who are obese has tripled to 9 million in the last 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those kids are threatened with major diet-related health problems, like diabetes. Health experts say eating a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is an important component in combating these diseases.

More than 30 million children get much of their daily nutrition at school.  Waiting another year to improve the Child Nutrition Act-or two, as advocates worry-is unacceptable.

“I have kids who eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with us,” Ms. Wiggins said. “This legislation needs to pass now because of the epidemic of obesity. Our nation is at risk. Our children are at risk. Our families are at risk. I would encourage all of our politicians: Make this your back-to-school present.”

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist in food and farming for the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute. She leads MLUI’s farm to school program in northwest Lower Michigan and writes about local, state, and national policy.  This column was first published in the Sunday, May 31 edition of the Detroit Free Press, and can be found there online now.