Yesterday, the NYTimes reported on the difficult and rewarding nature of trying to get local foods into schools, by overcoming tangible barriers and bureaucratic obstacles in Local Carrots with a Side of Red Tape.
The article illustrates the large example of the NYC School System which has tried to use its tremendous purchasing power to help many of the struggling fruit and vegetable farmers of New York state. This video features a smaller scale example in MA.
The article makes brief mention of the policies which currently make it difficult for the 10,874 [and counting] schools across the country that are part of the Farm to School movement to source school food locally, which brings us back to...drumroll, please: THE FARM BILL
In case readers of this blog don't have enough other reasons to care about the Farm Bill--which is scheduled to be debated by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee next Tuesday, Oct 23--with farm and conservation payments, organic research, food stamps and the myriad other items up for negotiation, the ability for schools to request local foods for school meals is a small item of great import to be included in the draft of the Farm Bill due out any day now.
Specifically, all schools that receive federal dollars for school meal (lunch, breakfast, after-school, summer, etc.) purchases must follow a federal bidding process, also called procurement, and therefore have historically needed to comply with a federal ban on geographic preference for procurement. In the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress included language encouraging schools to purchase local foods. Yet, apparently the law was not clear enough in its intent to exempt schools from the ban on geographic preferences, and it has been difficult (.pdf) for many schools to prove to the USDA that they should be allowed (.doc) to do so.
Therefore, the House included in its Farm Bill a provision which a) encourages schools to purchase local foods when "practicable and appropriate" and b) makes this exemption from the ban on geographic preferences clear for all school meals. This provision does not provide any kind of mandate for local food-- only the option to request it if this is in the interest of the school food service program. Clearly, this is not the only action needed to change the nature of school meals, but many believe it is an important step in the right direction. More info here or at FarmtoSchool.org.