WHY DON’T BAY AREA SCHOOLS SERVE MORE LOCAL INGREDIENTS?
Suzan DelBene wants to get Russian fish sticks out of American school cafeterias.
In a new bill the Washington state representative introduced to Congress last month, school districts that get funding through the National School Lunch Program would be required to buy only American seafood, with the goal of supporting domestic fishers and providing better seafood to children. Sixty percent of the almost 3 million pounds of pollock — the flaky white fish often used for fish sticks — purchased through the program last year came from Russia; the other 40 percent from Alaska.
The fact that DelBene feels the need to put the requirement into law shows how difficult it is to get local food into school cafeterias.
While Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard Project laid the groundwork when it started in 1995, a wider movement is now taking hold, partly thanks to the Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Grant Program, which started in 2012.
This year, Edible Schoolyard is one of four Bay Area nonprofits, school districts and counties that will receive one of those grants, which it will use to train educators. Sonoma County earned close to $100,000 to expand its farm-to-preschool programs serving low-income children.
Berkeley’s Center for Ecoliteracy also will receive $100,000 to provide more training and resources in its California Thursdays project, which encourages schools to serve California-grown food once a week — or at least regularly. The program launched with Oakland Uni- fied School District in 2013 and is now in 58 state school districts.
But while California produce is making inroads, there are significant hurdles to getting local proteins to schools.
When the budget for a school entree is around just 65 cents, as it is in Oakland Unified, it’s not easy to afford local seafood, meat or chicken, although the district’s menu planner, Amy Glodde, manages to buy some pasture-raised beef and organic chicken by using smaller portions and buying cheaper protein other days of the week.
Glodde already buys only American seafood, she says, including local seafood through a program with seafood purveyor Real Good Fish, which sources bycatch fish like grenadier from Bay Area fishermen for school districts.
“We should be buying domestic when we can to support our local fishermen and processors, and if it’s more nutritious too, it’s a no-brainer,” says Ramsey Cox, DelBene’s communications director.
DelBene believes domestic seafood is better for children since imported seafood is usually frozen and defrosted multiple times in its journey to the United States, losing nutrients in the process.
Imported fish generally is cheaper since a large portion of seafood’s cost comes from filleting and handling. Most Russian pollack is processed in China, where labor costs
“We should be buying domestic when we can to support our local fishermen and processors, and if it’s more nutritious too, it’s a no-brainer.” Ramsey Cox, communications director for Rep. Suzan DelBene
are significantly lower than in Alaska.
The National School Lunch Program already has a provision that calls on school districts to buy domestic food products “to the maximum extent practicable.” DelBene’s legislation would change the language to specifically re- quire the purchase of American seafood, whether farmed or wild. Tuna, which is often caught in international waters, would have to come from an American vessel.
When it comes to other foods, if Congress approves, the Farm to School grant program is poised to increase from $5 million to $10 million a year, which means more school kids could be eating local food in years to come.
As California schools try to get more local food into school lunch programs, students in Monterey, top and above, try fish tacos. Left: Eduardo Guerrero (left) and Elliott Nguyen grab plates of chicken and rice last summer at an Oakland school as part of the California Thursdays ecoliteracy program.