More fresh food on lunch trays and restricting genetically-modified crops from growth in parts of the county soon could be changes considered by Montgomery County leaders.
At a forum on food security Saturday in Takoma Park, County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said she would like Montgomery County Public Schools to take up a program through the Kennedy Cluster Project that would connect a private vendor with the cluster to use existing kitchen equipment to provide more hot and fresh food to students.
Ervin said Tuesday the program was attempted before, but conflict between the vendor and an employee union prevented it from moving forward. The next step to trying the program again, she said, would be talking with Superintendent Joshua P. Starr.
During the two-hour forum, Ervin, State Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, Caroline Taylor of Montgomery Countryside Alliance, Montgomery County farmer Sophia Maravell of Nick's Organic Farm and Brickyard Educational Farm and Michele Levy of Crossroads Community Food Network and the Montgomery County Food Council answered questions posed by Gordon Clark, project director of Montgomery Victory Gardens, and the audience.
Identified by Clark as an “elephant in the room” Saturday, the conversation consistently circled back to food provided to students.
Ervin said she feels sorry for the about 44,000 children in county schools who receive free and reduced-price meals, saying for most of them, meals they get school are probably the most nutritious they will eat.
“You have seen these meals, they are not nutritious meals,” Ervin said. “I would not want my children to be eating them.”
Each school meal must include 2 oz. of meat or meat-alternatives, 3/4 cup of fruit and vegetables from two sources, a grain and milk, said Marla Caplon, director of the school system’s Division of Food and Nutrition Services.
Fresh fruit is available on each school line at breakfast and lunch, and entree salads are served weekly in elementary schools and daily in secondary schools, she said.
But not every child chooses those options.
“Kids are kids and they want their pizza and their chicken nuggets,” Caplon said. “I find the more kids are exposed [to different foods] the more they are willing to try, but kids want things they identify with. We have students who take advantage of the salads we make, but the majority of students still want cheese dippers, chicken nuggets and pizza.”
Of the options listed on the school system’s 2011-12 school year Nutrient Information for Secondary Lunch Menus, the entree with the highest calories was the taco salad with tortilla pieces, which had 648 calories and boasted the second-highest fat content at 34 grams; the highest is spicy grilled cheese’s 48 grams of fat. The lowest calorie entree was a turkey burger at 109 calories. At 3 grams, the lowest fat items were a turkey sub on an Italian sub roll and a “Grab n’ Go” bagel with 8 ounces of yogurt. Cheese dippers with salsa had 339 calories and 14 grams of fat.
Most of the items served each day in county schools probably are on the lower end of the calorie spectrum, Caplon said, noting the system uses lean meat and does not add fat.
“We have a hard time meeting calories, believe it or not,” she said. “When you think about it, we only use fat free or 1 percent milk, and many kids choose chocolate milk, which is fat free so it is very difficult meet calorie requirements of the students.”
As for fresh food, Raskin said Saturday he has heard schools would love to incorporate more fresh or local food into meals, but smaller food producers cannot meet the demand of the schools.
“If we can get to the school system and get them to put out bids to say ‘Here is what we are looking for in terms of local food,’ then that market will arise and the supply will come to meet the demand,” Raskin said. “I think that Valerie is on to something there and we should do everything we can to push it.”
Schools spokesman Dana Tofig said Tuesday the system supports the idea of more fresh fruits and vegetables and having more come from the local region, but it also falls under strict federal requirements for the food to qualify for reimbursement of free and reduced-priced meals.
“Which is why salad bars present a challenge,” he said. By the federal definition, it is difficult to qualify a salad bar for FARMs reimbursement, he said.
The system also works with its distributors to source as much of its food locally as possible, which could include food from Pennsylvania, New Jersey or other areas on the East coast, Caplon said.
It costs the school system $3.53 to provide each meal, Caplon said. Students not receiving free or reduced-priced meals pay $2.50 for a lunch in elementary school, $2.75 in middle and high school and $1.30 for breakfast. The system prepares 60,000 lunches and 35,000 breakfasts each day.
For elementary school meals, the entree is prepared at the food production facility, packaged uncooked then shipped to the schools where “finishing” kitchens heat it to 165 degrees the next day. Fresh produce, grocery items and dairy are shipped to the schools.
Standardizing saves the school system the money it would otherwise have to pay to employ staff to make meals at schools, Caplon said.
Ervin also said Saturday she would explore legislation to restrict genetically modified food — also known as GMOs — from being grown in certain areas of the county’s 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve.