Pushing Local Carrots

18 Oct 2007

New York City school kids eat carrots. The problem is that while there are perfectly delicious carrots being grown in their own state, students are fed others coming from distant parts of the United States.

Richard Ball, a New York farmer whose mineral rich soil produces sweet carrots, began two years ago trying to get local carrots served in schools. His carrot project reduces food miles, supports local farms, and brings a fresher, tastier vegetable to the students’ plates.

After proposing the project to the city’s school food program directors, his seemingly logical ideas were met with bureaucratic details that prevented its implementation. Yet, already there had been an improvement in what schools were serving because of the efforts of other farm-to-school programs. For example, by introducing bagged and sliced New York apples, the SchoolFood Plus Organization had successfully quadrupled the total number of apples eaten in New York City schools.

With successes like that, Ball wondered why it was so difficult to get local carrots on the menu. David Berkowitz, the man running the city’s school food program, explained that “the logistics are very complicated,” logistics being that fresh carrots are too labor intensive to prepare with the food handling system currently existing in the schools.

School lunches also have to meet Department of Agriculture guidelines, which favor individually packaged foods. The district was serving 285,000 pounds of bagged baby carrots already, so Karen Karp, a food industry consultant who was working with the school district, thought it seemed like a reasonable solution to switch to local. She contacted, Jerry Dygert, the man who packages the local apple slices introduced through SchoolFood plus.
The two began searching for local carrot farmers, but the local farmers were producing a different type of carrot than the one normally shaved down to produce the ‘baby’ sized version. They pondered the idea of getting farmers to switch, but with no guarantee from the schools that the farmers would have a market for them, it seemed too difficult.

Farmer Mr. Ball, still passionate about getting local foods into schools, began attempting to grow the variety used by the baby carrot producers. He sadly realized, though, that not only do baby carrots waste a large percentage of the carrot, but the variety used, Sugar Snax, also does not grow well in the region.
He returned back to growing the local variety, and together with Karp and Dygert, they found a solution. Instead of shaping the carrots into small pieces, they thought of something like a coin. A round type cut creates less waste and worked well with the type of carrot, the Nantes Variety.
Many more steps would follow in attempts to get the carrots authorized and enough farmers growing them to meet the demand. Mr. Berkowitz began fighting the battle with bureaucracy that seemed slighted against local food.

Currently school districts that spend federal money on food cannot give preferential treatment to local products, and they are required to go with the cheapest product that meets government specifications. Hopefully a provision, currently being debated in the U.S. Congress, for the 2007 Farm Bill being will change that.

After many obstacles, distributors have now gotten approval to buy the carrots. Mr. Ball has about 20 tons of carrots in storage and those ready to be harvested, which just maybe will make it into schools by the end of the month.
Speaking to the New York Times Mr. Ball exclaims, “It’s like herding cats, but if we don’t start talking about it’s never going to happen. We spent the last 40 years getting out of the local food business so I figure it’s going to take a few years to turn that around.”

SOURCE:
New York Times

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