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Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - 12:01pm

Schools Hungry For Local Produce

Advocates for eating local cite many benefits – fewer nutrients lost in transit and less carbon spent on the trip.

But schools can’t always be so choosy. They have to feed kids a certain number of fruits and vegetables every day, and it can be hard to get enough from nearby producers.

Even in an agricultural state like Georgia, the healthiest school food is rarely local.

Bibb County is a prime example. Every one of the approximately 10,000 breakfasts and 20,000 lunches served each day in Bibb County Schools starts at a central commissary where most things are made from scratch.

On a recent visit the air was heavy with yeast, as big-armed ladies wrestled enough dough to make 15,000 whole wheat roles.

Bibb County School Nutrition Director Cleta Long is regarded by her peers as one of the best school nutrition directors in Georgia. While many schools are struggling to meet new federal guidelines requiring a higher percentage of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, Bibb County has had to change relatively little.

Long also launched a farm-to-school program last spring, where she tries to feature one local fruit or vegetable each week.

“Sometimes that’s not possible,” Long said. “I wish there were more things, locally.”

Local food advocates feel like they're winning small battles, says Chris Kiker, food access coordinator for Community Healthworks, a Macon non-profit that helps coordinate Bibb County’s modest farm-to-school program. He also manages the Wednesday Mulberry Street Farmers Market in downtown Macon.

“Locally here in Georgia, especially around Central Georgia, there’s not a lot of producers, especially to produce on such a large scale for the school system and bring the prices down," Kiker said. "Farmers at the Mulberry Street Farmers Market [are] getting 10 to 15 times what the school system would pay for local produce.”

Part of the problem is that Georgia lacks a strong culture of small, independent farms, says Tim Smith, co-owner with his wife Kaye of Vesterfield Farms in Cochran.

Last year Smith provided a week’s worth of carrots to Bleckley County as part of the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s “Feed My School” program.

In this part of the country, where huge farms have passed from owner to owner since the colonial period, there just aren’t a lot of little guys like Vesterfield Farms.

“Most of the farmers in our area, they don’t grow a lot of vegetables,” he said. “They grow what we call ‘row crops,’ you know, cotton, peanuts, soybeans.”

Though Smith says farms like his are on the rise, and they’d like to serve more schools. But that would present a whole other problem, says Mark Vanderhoek, founder of the non-profit Macon Roots.

“The challenge for institutions is, ‘we have lots of little farmers, great at producing things over the summer, pretty good at producing things in the fall and winter, but how do we find enough of it, gather it together on a daily basis to feed the number of people we need?” Vanderhoek said.

In the globalized food system, that challenge is handled by a distributor. But Vanderhoek’s organization is hoping to start up a local non-profit equivalent called a “food hub,” a literal warehouse that could aggregate local farmers’ products to big buyers like schools.

But in the meantime, Long figures her job isn’t to care as much about where her fruits and vegetables coming from, as where they’ll end up – on her kid’s trays.

“There’s nothing wrong with the produce that we get out of California,” she said. “It’s good produce.”

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