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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Turning back-to-school lunches green

This post is part of the Green Moms Carnival, which, this month, is focusing on greening up your back-to-school routine.

People often think “going green” means you have to spend a lot of money. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Making school (or even work) lunches green doesn’t require a huge outlay of cash. In fact, by packing eco-friendly lunches, you are more likely to save money, your children are more likely to eat healthier foods, and you are taking care of the earth by producing less waste. It’s a win-win-win!

Time is often an important factor when it comes to packing lunches (at least it is for me). And while some of the following suggestions take time to prepare, if you do your prep work on a weekend, you will have food conveniently ready to toss into lunch containers throughout the week(s) ahead.

When shopping for school lunch foods, be mindful of greenwashing – “a term used to describe the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly.” Just because a product claims to be “natural,” contain “whole grains” or even “organic” doesn’t mean it’s healthy or what it claims to be. Read labels carefully. The more processed food is and the more ingredients it has, the less likely it is to be healthy whether it’s organic or not. I mean seriously, organic Oreos? Give me a break!

If you buy individually packaged foods, like organic fruit snacks, how green are you really being? Think about how much plastic and packaging is involved there. A great alternative is to make your own organic fruit snacks. If you can use locally-grown fruit from your own garden or farmer’s market, all the better. Package them in a reusable container like these reusable sandwich bags found in the Cool Mom Picks Back to School Guide and you have a tasty “green” snack ready to go!

Far better than buying food that contains a label is to buy label-less food, like fresh produce! Chopped fruits and vegetables, paired with a dip or nut butter, bring color, taste and healthiness to every lunchbox. Try to choose fruits and vegetables that are in season and grown locally whenever possible. You can even buy large quantities of in-season fruits or veggies and then dehydrate them to throw into lunches year-round.

Granola bars are another great snack, but when you buy them from the store they are often full of unwanted ingredients, additives and preservatives and come with excessive packaging and waste. When you make them yourself, you control what goes into them and you significantly cut down on trash or eliminate it all-together. Check out these tasty do-it-yourself granola bar recipes below. You are sure to find at least one that your kiddos will eat. Some don’t even require baking! Make a batch on the weekend and you are set for lunches for the week. Put them in a reusable container and they are good to go.

Nuts are a great protein-filled food that can easily be packed into lunches. I just read a post by a woman on Freecycle asking for used Altoids containers. She said she uses them to pack nuts in her kids’ lunches. What a great idea! If your school has a no peanuts policy, ask if other nuts such as almonds, cashews, pecans or walnuts are acceptable.

Does your child like yogurt but you don’t like all of the waste (recyclable or not) produced by individual cups? Here’s another thing you can make at home (even in your crockpot), then scoop into your reusable container and you’re set. If you run short on time and have to buy yogurt from the store, buy it in the larger containers, then scoop out the desired amount into your child’s reusable container. Again, less waste.

If your child’s school doesn’t have the option for them to compost their leftover food (perhaps you can inquire about it and get a system started), ask them to bring home their leftovers rather than throw them into the trash so you can either save them if they are salvageable or compost them yourself. This will also allow you to gauge how much and which foods your child ate for lunch.

Along the same lines, check with your child’s school to see if they have a recycling system in place. If not, find out how you can get one started.

Michelle at What’s Cooking blog has an entire post chock full of ideas to help your child eat healthy school lunches. Some of her tips include:

  • Keep in mind that your children don’t have much time to eat…so pack foods in small portions that are easy to eat, so they have time left to play.
  • Let your child help you select a cool lead-free and reusable lunch bag or lunch box. Pick up a few reusable containers that will fit inside – this will prevent food from leaking and getting smashed, and will help you avoid using disposable items like plastic bags and foil.
  • Pack a reusable drink container instead of juice boxes, juice pouches, cans, and disposable plastic bottles.
  • Buy in bulk instead of purchasing pre-packaged items.
  • Whenever possible, pack lunches the night before.

Michelle also has some great tips for sandwich alternatives, thermos treasures, and container combinations that kids can assemble themselves.

Looking for more lunch container ideas? Check out:

  • Lunch Bots Uno and Duo
  • Kids Konserve which contains a page with a lot of information for schools, including a waste-free challenge to earn or save money for their schools. (Use code: crunchy for 15% off your Kids Konserve purchases through Sept. 30, 2009)
  • Retro Housewife put a list of cute reusable containers, utensils and cloth napkins for back-to-school waste-free lunches
  • Kellie at GreenHab has also put together a nice selection of lunch boxes

There ya have it. Turning your school lunches green is healthier, less costly and better for the earth, and probably even more fun. If you have money-saving green lunch tips or kid-friendly recipes, please post your links in the comments.

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Cross-posted on BlogHer

Make sure you head over to Organic Mania on Monday, Aug. 10, to find out how other Green Moms are greening their back to school routine in this month’s Green Moms Carnival.

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Michelle Obama to grow White House organic victory garden

ABC News has reported the Obamas are going to plant a vegetable garden at the White House*. The New York Times also announced that work on the organic garden will begin as early as tomorrow when Michelle Obama, accompanied by 23 fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, will begin digging up a section of the White House lawn to begin planting. Although the 1,100 square foot garden, set to be located in the south grounds, will be out of the main view of the house, it will still be visible to the public on E Street.


First Lady Michelle Obama recently told Oprah‘s O magazine about her garden plans:

We want to use it as a point of education, to talk about health and how delicious it is to eat fresh food, and how you can take that food and make it part of a healthy diet. You know, the tomato that’s from your garden tastes very different from one that isn’t. And peas – what is it like to eat peas in season? So we want the White House to be a place of education and awareness. And hopefully kids will be interested because there are kids living here.

Who will take care of the garden?
In addition to the White House grounds crew and kitchen staff, Michelle mentioned to The New York Times that nearly all family members will play a part in maintaining the garden.

Almost the entire Obama family, including the president, will pull weeds, “whether they like it or not,” Mrs. Obama said laughing. “Now Grandma, my mom, I don’t know.” Her mother, she said, would probably sit back and say: “Isn’t that lovely. You missed a spot.”

What will they grow?
The 1,100 square foot plot will feature a wide variety of vegetables, herbs and fruits to include 55 varieties of vegetables, a patch of berries and two bee hives for honey. The organic seedlings will be started at the executive mansion’s greenhouses. “Total cost for the seeds, mulch, etc., is $200.”

The organic garden will feature raised beds “fertilized with White House compost, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand. Ladybugs and praying mantises will help control harmful bugs.”

Organic seedlings? White House compost? Natural pest control? I’m sorry, but I know I’m not the only one who is absolutely ecstatic over all of this?! :)

In fact, groups like Eat The View and The WHO (White House Organic) Farm, as well as author Michael Pollan and chef Alice Waters, have been advocating for a White House garden pretty much from the time President Barack Obama was inaugurated and I bet they are all whooping it up right about now.

What will they do with all of that food?
Eat it, of course. The White House chefs will be planning the menu around the garden. Eating locally and in season? Aiiiieee! Be still my heart!

This is not the first time a vegetable garden has been planted at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Eleanor Roosevelt had a Victory Garden planted in 1943 during World War II and there were gardens before that as well.

Hopefully the Obama’s new garden will inspire the people of our country to begin growing even little bits of their own food. Gardens come in all shapes and sizes – from little pots in a window, to bigger pots on a balcony or porch, to a little raised bed in the sunny spot in your backyard, to a community garden plot, to a much bigger plot. Every little bit helps us live more sustainably, protect our food supply, and reduce our carbon footprint. Perhaps sweetest of all, food grown in your own backyard tastes so much better because it’s fresh and hasn’t made a week or two-week long journey half-way around the world!

What do you think? Will the new victory garden start a resurgence in gardening in America? Has that resurgence already begun? Have you planted a garden in the past? If not, do you plan on it this year?

*Thanks to Nature Deva for the tip-off!