Maya-Loves-Chocolate-150x150By Tina Dirmann
BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

There’s an important fight raging in Louisiana… A true battle to bring fresher, locally produced foods into our school lunchrooms. And we’ve proudly staked our place on the front lines of that battle, through our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant awardee Growing LA.

But why is this “a fight” at all? Why shouldn’t everyone want to feed our students healthier, fresher, locally produced foods? Who could possibly be against that?

Well, the folks who own the food contracts in our parishes, for one.  A provision in these contracts (which calls for trucking in frozen, canned and preservative packed food from around the country) strictly forbids any food not provided by these large distributors to be doled out to our students. In short, the contracts forbid supplementing any portion of a meal with competitor products — even student grown products (produced, say, for free in a school’s own community garden).

Growing LA’s Marianne Cufone serves up a chocolate treat during the Women’s Wellness cooking class in Algiers.
Marianne Cufone, project leader for Growing LA

“That actually happened,” said Marianne Cufone, project director for the Growing LA wellness initiative, who remembers a recent maddening experience while dining at a local school.

“Lunch was a white, cold, styrofoam looking roll with a wilted lettuce leaf, a processed chicken patty, a side package of ketchup, which was considered the vegetable. And then there was a small cup of strawberry gelatin purree. That was the fruit.”

It was the strawberry gelatin fruit part that really got to Cufone. Because those strawberries came from a provider in California, where a severe freeze ruined the west coast berry crop that season. Meanwhile, this school had their own bright and beautiful strawberry garden thriving in their very own backyard. Turns out, this school grew fresh, Louisiana strawberries and sold them to parents as a fund raising effort.911354_10201022937312882_1369957558_n

But try to serve those same strawberries to the student body at lunch? Forbidden.

This is how you pick a carrot! Emily Watts, 3, enjoys her Highland neighborhood’s new community garden.

“A contract violation,” Cufone said. “It was a legal issue if they had accepted the free strawberries grown at their own back door. The kids kept saying, ‘Why can’t we eat our own strawberries?’ But they couldn’t. It was an eye opening and saddening experience. And that’s what we’re trying to change.”

She adds, “We’re so worried about liability sometimes, common sense disappears.”

Today, Growing LA is on a mission to train every school in New Orleans on how to re-write those food provider contracts, ensuring that every new agreement earmarks an allowance for food produced by local farmers and, of course, student gardeners.

As Cufone explains, most schools don’t realize that they don’t have to turn over 100% of their food supply to the lowest bidder. In fact, “there’s a law in Louisiana that allows schools to opt for a provider that is 7% higher than any lowest bidder, if that provider is local.”

Ah-ha! A glimmer of common sense legislation! And one that Cufone says most schools probably aren’t aware of — and certainly aren’t taking advantage of….

Healthy snacking in cooking class (whole wheat quesadillas with salsa)!The solution? Growing LA folks are holding training sessions for schools, inviting leaders to learn how to re-write these important food contracts, adding provisions that a percentage of all food will be provided by local farmers and growers.

It’s a tedious process, since New Orleans schools are largely individual charter schools. The original plan was to start with the Recovery School District, which had the power to make a change in all of their schools. But as of fall 2014, Orleans Parish officially abolished the RSD. Now, as in most of New Orleans, there is no single school board to work with — no one governing body who can implement a policy for all schools throughout the region. Since Katrina, independent charter schools, each with their own set of rules and governing bodies, are the norm. So Growing LA’s team must approach each school individually. A slow and tedious process.

Hoping to overcome this blow, Growing LA is now inviting representatives from each charter school to attend the new training sessions.

But that’s not all… Cufone’s team also adopted two local schools for a pilot program.

“We’re partnering local farmers with the schools so we can show everyone else, ‘See, this is how it works in these school! And you can replicate this on your own campus.’ ”

Asst. Principal McCarley surrounded by her newest crew of junior gardeners!The program becomes a “win” for local farmers, too, since they now have another consumer (our schools) buying their produce.

Growing LA is also working with state legislators on a new Farm to School resolution, which would help schools procure more locally grown produce. Such a program would also put added pressure on the contractors providing the bulk of our school’s food (forcing them to offer more fresh fruits and vegetables… Actual vegetables, like tomatoes, perhaps, instead of, well, ketchup packets).

“The bottom line is that we want to improve the quality of food in Louisiana’s public schools,” Cufone said.  “We know that for many low income students getting free school lunches and breakfast, this may be the only time they eat each day. So it’s even more important that the one or two meals they get are healthy ones, with quality food. We owe them that.”

Cufone is also the executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition in New Orleans.