Schools are going local in cafeteria around the state
RALEIGH — North Carolina's public schools are going local in their cafeterias more than most states.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said this week that North Carolina is among the country's leaders in buying and serving local food to students — based on department's first nationwide "Farm to School Census" of school districts.
More than 60 percent of North Carolina's 115 districts said they've been participating in farm-to-school activities, which can include purchasing from local sources and planting edible gardens, according to the census. Those 73 districts, which have nearly 1 million children, reflect a broader trend of people choosing locally produced foods for their tables.
Participating North Carolina schools reported in the 2011-12 school year directing nearly one-fifth of their school food spending to local sources. While some states are spending a greater portion of their overall food budget locally, the $34.4 million that North Carolina districts reported is second only to California at $48 million in the most dollars spent locally, the USDA reported.
School districts nationwide participating in the census reported $355 million in local food purchases. North Carolina is an overachiever, Kevin Concannon, the department's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said Wednesday.
"The effort to promote more local purchasing of fruits and vegetables and meats by school systems is growing across the country, and North Carolina as a state is a very good example," Concannon said in an interview.
Among the North Carolina schools participating in the census, Vance County reported the highest percentage of going local — spending 50 percent of their food budget locally, followed by the Mount Airy schools at 45 percent and Chapel Hill-Carrboro at 39 percent. Combined, the Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune school districts reported 40 percent.
In the largest districts, Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg both reported spending 17 percent of food money locally, while Guilford County was at 10 percent.
Twenty-five percent of the state's school districts also reported having schools tending gardens with edible food. North Carolina districts said fruits and vegetables were what they bought most from local growers or operations, with berries, apples, sweet potatoes, lettuce and watermelon leading the way.
The USDA's farm-to-school program encourages healthy foods at school lunch tables and helps local economies. Purchasing local foods or having locally-grown farmers fill cafeteria dishes may be cheaper than transporting products great distance, Concannon said.
While kids are sure to turn up their noses at some healthy foods, they may be more inclined to eat products that are possibly grown by a farmer whose son or daughter happens to be a classmate.
"We're trying to make the better choice the easier choice for young people as well their parents," Concannon said.
The results aren't yet complete — districts have until Nov. 30 to respond to the census requests. But 97 North Carolina districts already have responded." The final results will serve as a baseline to measure against future results.
A 2010 law authorized USDA to help schools and other organizations improve the prevalence of locally-grown foods in school cafeterias. USDA gives up to $5 million in grants to help districts with program initiatives.
The department also oversees the federal school breakfast and lunch programs for children in low-income families.