Charlottesville schools officials are looking for ways to expand the proportion of local foods offered in the system’s prepared meals over the course of the next year.
The division last spring received a Green Ribbon Schools award from the U.S. Department of Education in part for its use of local produce in lunch menus and snacks, but is looking for ways to expand such offerings.
The school division currently buys some fare from the Local Food Hub, and prepares and distributes a few “from-scratch” meals a week from the kitchen at Charlottesville High School, said Carlton Jones, city schools nutrition administrator.
The division hosts a program called Harvest of the Month with the Local Food Hub and the City Schoolyard Garden, which provides a fresh, locally grown snack for students and gives them recipes to try at home.
But the schools face funding, personnel and infrastructure challenges if they are going to make the supply of scratch-made meals and local ingredients more consistent, Jones said.
Local food is more expensive than the mass-produced “heat and eat” meals that make up traditional school lunches. Cooking from scratch requires equipment and staff training that mass-produced food does not.
“If we started getting a lot more fresh, local foods, we would have to train on knife skills and we might need new equipment,” Jones said.
Kristen Suokko, executive director of the Local Food Hub, said her organization works with the schools to make sure produce is cost effective, but also must take care of the farmers with whom it works.
“We work with the schools on pricing, but it is always our first priority to pay farmers a fair price, and that means that sometimes prices are out of reach for the school budgets,” she said.
After speaking last month with local food writer, chef and activist Alice Waters, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer encouraged schools officials to apply for a Department of Agriculture Farm to School grant, which would have provided funding to expand local offerings.
Applications were due Dec. 8, and staff did not have time this year to prepare a proposal, Jones said, but will work to have something ready for next year’s funding round.
“We are really starting to think closely about that and really next year it is possible that we will apply for that grant,” he said. “Now that we have time to prepare, we can really think about what kind of things we would use that money for.”
The grants provide money for planning, implementation or staff training.
The schools have discussed preparing from-scratch meals and distributing them throughout the division daily, but fitting the kitchen to produce fresh meals five days a week likely would take retooling, said city School Board Chairwoman Amy Laufer.
“We had discussed doing a central kitchen at the high school, and distributing the scratch-made food, but that would definitely be a capital improvement, and would have to be put in the capital budget,” she said.
Though the City Council has no direct sway over the administration of the schools, Signer said he plans to advocate for more local food in school meals.
“I want to be crystal clear: we have a separate administration, a separate School Board, and City Council does not design the administration of the schools,” he said. “With that proviso, to me, if I was dreaming of the future, it would be wonderful if school lunches could be healthier and creative and not as dependent on reheated, unhealthy … products.”
Both Suokko and Jones said the barriers to incorporating more local food within the division’s budget are not insurmountable, but will take planning.
“It is something that we can incorporate more of because we already offer a variety of choices on a daily basis,” Jones said. “It might not be the main entrée, but it is something that we could incorporate and sustain over a long period of time.”