Give (Fresh) Peas a Chance!
October 29th, 2011 - By Therese Madden
A new collaboration between selected Philadelphia School Cafeterias and local farmers helps replace canned and frozen fruits and veggies on the lunch tray with fresh produce. Students enjoy expanding their taste buds while farmers profit from a ready market.
Is it really a mystery what kids will say when asked about their school cafeteria food?
"This food? Nasty."
"It could be so much better."
"Vegetables is cool yeah, but the other stuff, the burgers be all burnt, the chicken patties be undercooked and…"
Wait, that last student did say something positive, and I have it on tape, listen, "yeah, yeah, vegetables is cool, yeah." That's Steve, he's in 12th grade at South Philadelphia High School. I asked him to elaborate a little. "I dunno they just good, they like vegetables, they natural." Here at South Philadelphia High School, the cafeteria is proud of it's vegetables and fruits. They're one of the 28 Philadelphia public schools participating in the Farm to School program, it's run by the School District, but they do get help from local non profits, The Food Trust and Fair Food. Deb Bentzel is the Farm to Institution Manager with Fair Food she explains, "Farm to School is a national movement that is designed to help better support local regional farmers wherever you may be, to bring more fresh local foods to school cafeterias."
Since the School District of Philadelphia has budget restrictions, not all the produce is local, but they do what they can. Today it's the lettuce and the peppers in the salad bar, plus apples and pears. The other choices for today's lunch are tacos, nachos, lasagna, hoagies or pizza, but a lot of kids are choosing salad. Sal Taylor is the Food Service Manager here at South Philadelphia High, he says salads are now a big seller. "Prior to the fresh farm we were doing about 40 salads. Now we are doing 125 salads." Taylor says one of the challenges of getting the students to try some of the local foods, is that they're not familiar with it. "Cause a lot of students say, I never had that, I never tasted that. Like when we first started using arugula lettuce they like what's that? That looks like something that fell off a tree. And you explain it, and then when we had the baby spinach and they are like, 'Yo this is not iceberg lettuce!' " The other challenge for the cafeteria workers, is that with food straight from the farm, there's more prep time. "You have to wash it a lot cause it has sand and dirt and bugs. The biggest problem is it's not prepped up so we have to chop and cut."
Taylor's not complaining though, he likes to work with fresh food. Word in the lunch room is that his roasted root vegetable medley is a student favorite. But even for the schools participating in Farm to School, there are still some old lunch room standbys. Wayne Grasela is Senior Vice President of Food Services for School District of Philadelphia, he says, "the USDA provides us with a significant amount of frozen vegetables. It's not dollars, it's actual green beans, corn, tatter tots, those kinds of things. It's basically sort of a subsidy from the government to help offset the cost of the program."
Farm to School doesn't cost the district any extra money. They only buy local when the prices are comparable to the large purveyors. That the students are eating more fresh fruits and vegetables is an accomplishment, but do they know where it comes from? Or that their schools cafeteria is helping support the local economy? In this lunch period, only one student I spoke with knew about the Farm to School program. Jeffery's in the 10th grade, "They say it comes from farms in our area and they bring it in fresh every week. I think it shows they care more by bringing in healthy foods."