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From the Farm to the Lunchroom

 From the Farm to the LunchroomServing local produce in public school cafeterias is a recipe for success, writes Tufts expert Kathleen Merrigan in a recent Boston Globe op-ed. Boston.

Boston [01.29.04] When reviewing the quality of food served in school cafeterias, Tufts nutrition expert Kathleen Merrigan could hardly give a four-star review. Budget cuts and a taste for unhealthy snacks have left the system, well, unappetizing. But Merrigan says there may be a new option on the menu which could help improve the nutritional value of school lunches: an innovative program that brings local produce to the students' lunch tables.

"As a mom, I can tell you that the customer isn't always right - my kids would eat candy 24/7 if I let them," Merrigan wrote in the Boston Globe. "So, in my last job, as a senior official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I was dumbfounded when a representative of the pear industry unveiled a new product designed for the National School Lunch program - individual plastic containers of processed pears in cotton-candy flavored syrup."

Merrigan - director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy - wrote that for the country's increasingly unfit population of kids, sugary snacks are hardly ideal.

"More than 25 percent of Americans under 19 are overweight or obese," the Friedman School assistant professor wrote in the Globe. "While sugary fruit may count toward the five-a-day recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, it can't possibly help establish healthy eating patterns."

The problem is particularly apparent at schools strapped for cash. According to the Tufts expert, 27 million children eat cafeteria lunches every day - more than half of whom receive the meal at reduced or no cost. While in the past subsidized programs have brought healthy food to kids in need, present financial strains are now forcing many schools to close their full-service kitchens and replace them with less nutritious options.

"Almost 20 percent of the public school cafeterias now sell brand-name fast food, such as Taco Bell, to raise revenue and cater to student food demands," the Tufts professor wrote in the Globe.

But schools now have a healthier choice. New "Farm to Cafeteria" programs could help rethink the ailing school lunch system.

"It began in 1997 when one Florida county rewrote the rules, sidestepping the school lunch bureaucracy by purchasing collard greens directly at a small farmer cooperative," Merrigan wrote in the Globe. "The result: fresh produce for children and economic gain for small farmers struggling to survive."

With increased access to fresh local fruit and vegetables, children are more likely to increase their consumption, wrote the Tufts professor.

But the program has a long way to go - less than one percent of the nation's school districts are embracing the idea. Several barriers -- including produce processing and school infrastructure issues -- are delaying implementation in many schools.

Despite its problems, the "Farm to Cafeteria" program can be a valuable addition to schools - benefiting both local farms and students' health, the Tufts expert wrote.

"From the local level on up to USDA where some commodities are centrally purchased, we must seek new ways to link our goals of healthy farms and healthy students," wrote Merrigan.


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