Chicago schools’ garden produce forbidden in the lunchroom

A school garden can be a wonderful outdoor classroom. Children can learn a variety of subjects while working with others to grow their own food. But in some school districts the children have the gardens to grow the food, but are forbidden from eating it in their lunchrooms.

When I first read that the Chicago Public Schools are not able to use the produce grown in their more than 40 school gardens in the lunchroom, I was shocked. Why grow it if you can’t consume it? The truth is that due to rules set by the district and its meal provider the food must be either given away, sent home with students, or sold.

“In order to use food in the school food program, it would need to meet specific/certified growing practices,” CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond said.

These requirements would include eliminating all “pesticides and insecticide” applications and using only “commercially prepared organic compost and fertilizers,” said Bob Bloomer, regional vice president of Chartwells-Thompson.

Commercial vendors, though, don’t have to abide by these rules. They can sell the district produce treated with several pesticides and grown in nonorganic fertilizer.

But produce grown by the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences on its 25-acre farm wouldn’t make the grade because, for example, it treats its corn with a single pesticide.

The school district touts using some local produce in its lunch program, but the produce that is most local of all — grown right outside their doors — is off limits. Children are being denied the most local and fresh produce of all. How does that make any sense?

According to the CDC, more than one-third of U.S. adults (over 72 million people) and 17% of U.S. children are obese. For Chicago children ages 6-11, the obesity rate is 28%. So in an area where more and more children are overweight or obese and, as evidenced in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, some American first graders can’t identify vegetables, the system is denying them healthy, local food.

Unfortunately, this is happening other school districts as well. Sybil who blogs at Musings of a Milk Maker told me on Facebook that this is also the case at the public school she is trying to get her daughter into.

Andrea Ward isn’t surprised by any of this. She had this to say on Facebook, “Lunch food is a big time business with big time rules and greed. Education is never about the kids (unless you are the one in the trenches–then that’s all you care about). Otherwise, it’s about politics. And politics is about money.”

However, other school districts across the country, such as Auburn School District in Washington state, have been able to adopt a garden to cafeteria plan. The school district’s 1 1/2 acre organic garden and orchard produces “fruits and vegetables for student lunches and snacks in 10 elementary schools. In addition to garden produce, the Auburn School District purchases from local farmers for all 22 schools.” This single garden produces food for all elementary schools during the growing and harvesting seasons.

Joanne White who blogs at Media Mum told me about her son’s elementary school in the Boulder Valley School District, Colo., where the school garden provides produce for its own salad bar. Joanne said, “The kids are fully involved from garden to table. No way Jamie Oliver would find any of them not knowing what a tomato is!”

In other school districts, the students eat what they grow, but not necessarily in the lunchroom, however not for the same reasons that the Chicago Public School District gave.

Karen from Eternal Maternal said her son participated in a school garden program at his elementary school located in Vancouver School District in Washington State. The children ate what they grew, but due to a variety of reasons including not enough of any one ingredient, lack of preparation time, etc., the produce was not used in the school cafeteria. Karen said, “I think it’s very important that kids learn where their food comes from and what it takes to get it to the point that it can be eaten. Providing food for oneself is a basic need. Typically, we don’t have to do it for ourselves until we’re in college and what do we do then? Go to the grocery store and buy a case of Ramen. When children learn to grow food that can sustain themselves, even if only partially, it gives them a sense of accomplishment, raises their awareness of the environment and, whether they realize it or not, raises their level of security because it’s a way they know of to care for themselves.”

At Stylin Momma Katy’s daughter’s charter elementary school in Maryland, all of the children participate in the school garden in one way or another. Her daughter is in kindergarten where they are in charge of pollination. The garden food is not used in the school cafeteria food (which is brought in) and most students bring lunches from home. However, Katy said, “they will sometimes have a sampling station in the lunchroom where the kids can try the foods picked from the garden, or they will use it in cooking class. They also have a school produce stand as a fundraiser.”

After hearing about the practices of different school districts, I have to say I find the reasoning behind Chicago Public School District’s ban on garden food in the lunchroom appalling. I have to agree with Andrea above who said, “it’s about politics. And politics is about money.” If the district had these kids’ best interests at heart, they would find a way to allow the locally grown garden food into the cafeterias.

Despite all of this, I am pleased to hear that many districts — especially inner-city districts like Chicago — have implemented school gardens. Perhaps even if the children are not allowed to eat the food in the lunchroom, they still are learning the valuable life lesson of how to grow it and perhaps are able to take some of it home to their families to enjoy.

Do your children have a school garden? Does the school use the produce in their lunchroom? How do you feel about Chicago’s policy?

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Photo credits: Flickr StevenDePolo and Sarz.K

Cross-posted on BlogHer

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18 thoughts on “Chicago schools’ garden produce forbidden in the lunchroom”

  1. I agree with Jenn that it’s not at all surprising, and quite appalling. I also think I need to push for the charter school my kids will be going to next year to start gardens. It will be the school’s first year and I know they’re still getting ideas.

  2. I think that is really crazy that they don’t let the children eat fresh home grown produce, yet it is perfectly acceptable for then to eat crap like a lunchable that has about as much nutritional value as an old shoe.

  3. When I read the bit on pesticides I thought, “Oh, cool, so that must mean the school only serves organic produce.” But then I read further and it made no sense whatsoever. It isn’t surprising though, which is the saddest part. I’m not positive but I want to say that we grew food we were allowed to eat at some point during my grade school education.

    I am not a fan of homeschooling in theory but shit like this makes me reconsider.

  4. I applaud you, Amy, for taking on this issue, and being critical of school lunch policies. It does seem absurd that students can’t eat the produce they’ve grown.

    I would like to encourage you, though, to de-couple the issue of children’s body size from their nutrition. Research shows that the two are not necessarily connected in a straightforward way – or at least not in a way that can be changed just by eating more vegetables. I believe in good nutrition for EVERYONE, fat and thin, and I think we’re much more likely to succeed in achieving better nutrition if we don’t alienate fat kids. (I use “fat” in the descriptive, not pejorative, sense, as is the practice in the size acceptance community.)

    You might want to take a look at the material recently released by NAAFA on the bullying of and discrimination against fat kids:

    And, as a general proclamation, nothing beats the inimitable Kate Harding’s writing:

    I hope this material is useful to you. Thanks for your blog – it inspires me all the time.

  5. That’s a real head-scratcher, isn’t it? One of the problems with education is that few people, especially school administrators, are unwilling to rock the boat for any reason, even with perfectly good educational (and sustainable!) ideas are hiding in plain sight.

  6. I just stumbled across your blog and find it really inspirational! I’m socially progressive and a bit ‘crunchy’ as well, mixed in with a touch of the old-fashioned 🙂

    I think school gardens are not only a great educational tool but also potentially very empowering for kids. In a world where food democracy is under increasing thread, I don’t think the effect of growing your own food on your consciousness is to be underestimated.

    All the best,
    This Good Life

  7. This is just appalling. Standards are there for a reason, sure, but people need to be able to exercise good judgment, too. Chicago in particular suffers from so many disparities in access to healthy food, especially produce, and it’s a shame that a sustainable solution isn’t more readily embraced and celebrated! I’m so glad you’re tackling this issue, and I hope the visibility serves as a corrective, too.

  8. I read (and loved) Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” several years ago, and got online immediately afterward just to see what kinds of solutions progressive schools were finding in order to get local produce (including produce grown on school grounds) into lunchrooms. Government regulations (and USDA economics… so yes, as you quoted, “Politics and money”) frequently make it nearly impossible. This story is a discouraging addition to that mix, but it’s nice to see some schools cited that are, in fact, including their students’ grown produce in the cafeteria’s salad bar (etc). It can be done.

    I do see a promising potential solution with regard to the Chicago schools’ protocol. The fact that the food must be sent home with students or given away provides a workable loophole, at least, into cultivating a connection to healthful, homegrown food in the students who’ve participated in the garden project; sending the food home with the students will mean that they’ll bring the conversation (and some desire to cook/prepare their goods) home… thereby extending the benefits of this element of their education into their family lives. In a country where few families eat together, and pre-packaged foods are the dinner time norm, this would at least provide an example of an alternative way to eat (and, ultimately, live) that those students’ parents might not otherwise consider.

    Btw, since we’re talking (local, healthy) food, check out the recipes on my site:

    Thanks for the great article!

    Taylor Alt-Mama

  9. That’s a lousy excuse for wasting a lot of fresh and healthy food, why even bother the kid grew a garden they can’t have for lunch. They have to consider this greatly, even though they can bring the veggies at home it would be nice to see this vegetables in the lunchroom as they will learn to enjoy eating the veggies they grew.

  10. We had a garden project in high school where we went into the urban neighborhoods and planted garden beds for the community.

    those skills and values have helped me with my ultrasound supplies business. It’s always good to do something and give back. Additionally, when you plant something, you know exactly what you are eating, so it’s promoting healthy eating.

  11. Its crazy that they won’t allow it…of course it wasn’t grown in a lab!! I just read about a CPS speech path that created a blog of her year long experience on the school lunch! YUCK!!!

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