Back in March, this web site reported that USDA was expanding its Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to all 50 states. And Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that $158 million in funds would be used to expand to serve fresh snacks to nearly 4 million elementary school students daily.
USDA now allows local schools to, for the first time, specify locally-grown produce when seeking bids for the lunch program. That has groups, like the New York Apple Association jumping with joy.
"Kids now have the opportunity to have fresh, crunchy, local New York apples in their school lunches instead of apples that are 3,000-miles old," says Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association. "Because their apples will be fresh and local, instead of from a faraway state, kids will enjoy them more and hopefully eat more too."
"Many of our farmers have kids in the local school systems, but have been unable to get those schools to buy their apples," Allen notes. "This has frustrated our growers for years, especially when their school taxes end up buying apples from competitors."
USDA's final ruling pertaining to the 2008 Farm Bill allows schools to put a geographical preference specification on school bids and in their purchasing procedures. The rule allows food service officials to preference "New York-grown" or grown within a certain number of miles away from their school in their bid descriptions. Bid specs can also be allowed to preference "Eastern Grown" or "Northeast."
And, the new rules allow schools to offer a premium on local apples to attract bids. Until the 2008 Farm Bill, schools could not, by law, include geographic criteria in a bid specification for fresh food orders.
Until recently, there were no clear guideline on how to actually implement the Geographic Preference provision of the Farm Bill. So, typically winning bids would come from states or continents that have huge surpluses of sub-par apples that would be "unloaded" onto the school lunch market.
Some schools have gotten around those restrictions by putting out bids for apple varieties typically grown in New York such as McIntosh and Empire, according to Allen. Still, allowing schools the flexibility to specifically seek bids from local farmers, who pay local school taxes and have their own kids enrolled in those schools, will benefit kids, parents and educators alike.