Bringing the farm to school

School lunches aren't typically celebrated as mouth-watering affairs, but walking into the Mountain Avenue Elementary School cafeteria this week, the food told a different story.

Ripe tomatoes were stacked next to freshly plucked greens, which sat alongside carrots, cucumbers and cauliflower.

"It is exciting to see the changes that are going on," said Agnes Lally, food services director for the Glendale Unified School District.

The produce, which came from independent farms in Carlsbad, Fillmore, Tehachapi and Goleta, was being served to Mountain Avenue students as part of Farm to School, a two-week pilot program run by the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.

The focus of the study is to identify and overcome logistical barriers to getting locally grown produce into the mouths of schoolchildren, said Sharon Cech of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute.

A lack of refrigeration, restricted staff time and high costs are among a long list of challenges that districts face in including fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals, Cech said. She cited as an example pears ordered from a San Luis Obispo farm that never made it to Mountain Avenue.

"The first batch was too soft because they were too ripe," Cech said. "They had to do it again, and that shipment got sent elsewhere and got misplaced at the warehouse. So we never got the pears there. It was a lesson learned."

The ultimate goal of Farm to School is to improve cafeteria food nutrition by synchronizing school food services departments with the local food system, Cech said. They are also working to develop an economically feasible model, she said.

Nutrition education and healthy lunches have become an increasingly important priority at Glendale Unified in recent years, Lally said. Produce is already served at all school sites, but officials say they are continually looking to enhance food services.

"[Students'] energy level is different when they are getting less processed food," said Mountain Avenue Principal Rebeca Witt. "Mountain Avenue is a very high-performing school. We do look at everything that is important to our students in order to be successful."

Childhood obesity in America is on the rise, said Geri Lorenzano, a nutritionist and consultant for Glendale Unified.

She cited a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 17% of Americans between the ages of 2 and 19 were obese.

"We know there is that link between nutrition and learning," Lorenzano said. "Healthy eating can have a profound impact on the academic success of our students. That is always in the back of our mind with the food that we serve."

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