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Friday, May 31, 2013

Fresh local food for school kids

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff

PROVIDENCE — More locally grown food could be incorporated into school lunches. The Senate recently passed a bill (S513) that promotes serving local fruits, vegetables and dairy products in school cafeterias.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Frank Lombardo III, D-Johnston, said he wants students to eat healthy foods, noting that just as important is the health of local farms.

“We have a lot of farms in Rhode Island that could use the business,” Lombardo said after the 36-0 Senate vote on May 21.

Lombardo originally wanted to mandate the purchasing of local foods, but, he said, he was persuaded by a co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, to launch the buy-local concept as a voluntary measure. If it’s not embraced, the program may be mandated in a few years, Lombardo said.

“I want to promote Rhode Island businesses," he said.

The state has helped fund Farm to School efforts since 2005 through Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Today, nearly every school district in the state buys from local farms. "It's still a vibrant program," said Ken Ayars of the state Division of Agriculture.

According to Farm Fresh Rhode Island, during the 2011-12 growing season, Rhode Island schools spent $175,000 on local food, up from $73,000 in 2009-10. Portsmouth, Tiverton and Providence spent the most per pupil. Jamestown, Chariho and Pawtucket spent the least.

Last year, Rhode Island schools purchased about 300,000 pounds of locally grown produce, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE).

RIDE commissioner Deborah Gist supports the legislation and efforts to use of locally grown produce in school food-service programs. The agreements that school districts currently sign with their food-service management companies include provisions regarding locally grown produce. The food-service management companies agree to maximize the use of locally grown produce whenever possible and to work with the farm-to-school initiative.

Lombardo said he was motivated to introduce the bill after Dame Farm in Johnston had to scale back a portion of its farming last year because of property ownership issues.

Per the legislation, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department of Health would work with school boards to coordinate the new initiative.

The bill moves on to the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare for a hearing.