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Some schools use local farms for healthy menus

Schools across the country are responding to obesity and diabetes concerns by adding more fruits, vegetables, salads and healthier alternatives to menus.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The buffet offers a variety of pizzas, with whole wheat crust, organic toppings and hormone-free cheese. The salad bar includes some greens and vegetables grown without pesticides in a nearby garden.

And the chef even takes special requests from vegetarians, those wanting gluten-free food or even an extra slice of free-range meat.

This isn't a restaurant in one of Kansas City's trendy neighborhoods, but a cramped room in the basement of the Kansas City Academy, a private school for 6th-12th graders in the city's Waldo district.

The Academy is one of three Kansas City-area private schools that participate in Bistro Kids' Farm 2 School program, which is committed to improving students' health by offering lunches from organic, natural, locally-grown food.

"It's really, really good," said sixth-grader Peter Imel, while chomping away on pizza. "When I first heard about it, I thought, 'OK, maybe, maybe not.' But it's better than any restaurant I've been to."

Kiersten Firquain, owner/operator of Bistro Kids, passionately believes that typical school lunch fare such as high-fat, nutrient-poor cheeseburgers, nachos and hot dogs is damaging the mental and physical health of the nation's children.

Health and nutrition experts agree, saying poor dietary habits are a contributing factor in dramatic increases in childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, asthma and high cholesterol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number of overweight children from ages 6-11 has more than doubled in the last 20 years and tripled in those aged 12-19.

Schools across the country are responding by adding more fruits, vegetables, salads and healthier alternatives to menus.

But few have gone as far as Firquain wants to go. She advocates providing lunches using foods free of additives, hormones, antibiotics and trans-fats. And she believes the ingredients should, as much as possible, come from local producers.

For Farm 2 School, Firquain uses several sources within a 200-mile radius of Kansas City, such as small family farms and organic bakeries. The rest she orders through Ball's Food Stores, which promotes locally grown foods.

Farm-to-school in 2,000 districts
Besides eating the healthy lunches, the program also educates students about the food cycle by bringing farmers and producers to the schools, teaching nutrition classes, growing school gardens and encouraging recycling.

While Firquain's is the first for-profit business in Kansas and Missouri promoting the farm-to school ideals, the concept has been gaining traction across the country since 2000, when a national Farm To School program started.

More than 2,000 school districts have some facet of a farm-to-school program, although most are not offering full meals but have selective products in the schools or bring in food producers for education efforts.

Schools — particularly public schools — face several obstacles before starting a farm-to-school program, advocates say. Many schools do not have the kitchen facilities or skilled labor needed to provide more than heat-and-serve meals.

"Schools often don't see food or cafeterias as a major investment," said Anupama Joshi, co-director of the national Farm To School network. "It's really sad because research has shown that the food we serve our kids can help them facilitate learning and is tied to performance."

Funding, paperwork obstacles
But the top barrier for both public and private schools is money.

Public school districts are reimbursed $2.57 by the federal government to provide a free meal, Joshi said, but most districts say a meal costs an average of $2.88. Firquain said some public schools have told her they have $1 left for food after they pay administrative costs.

Firquain said she currently works only with private schools, partly because of costs but also because of the bureaucracy and red tape in public school districts. But she said she eventually wants to serve 10-12 schools in the region, or about 1,000-1,200 students a day, with half of the schools targeting at-risk populations.

"We don't want to serve food only to kids who can afford to pay for it, but get it into the populations that need it most," she said.