Produce from school gardens increasingly ends up in school cafeterias

Districts in the Denver area are creating partnerships and programs to incorporate local produce into school meals.

DENVER—This year, another Colorado school district will join the growing national movement to bring fresh vegetables from school gardens into school cafeterias, directly onto the plates of the students who grew them.

Just four years ago, only a few schools in the country were doing this. But after Denver Public Schools worked with Slow Food Denver to create food-safety guidelines, the garden-to-cafeteria movement is spreading across the country, and the DPS food safety protocol is now a national model. By May 2013, four states and the District of Columbia had laws to ensure that produce from school gardens could be served in school cafeterias, according to the nonprofit ChangeLab Solutions.

"The kids are really excited about it," said Emily O'Winter, healthy schools coordinator at Jeffco Public Schools, which tested pilot programs at four of its schools last year. "They're so proud. At the salad bar, they look for their tomatoes from the garden."

Experts say the trend is rooted in a convergence of events: the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that targeted childhood obesity; new USDA nutritional requirements that fruits and vegetables be served daily at school lunches; and the growth in consumer demand for foods grown locally.

At first, the idea of serving vegetables from school gardens in school cafeterias was so novel that some school districts wouldn't allow it, pushback that was "primarily a misunderstanding about food safety policy and rules," said Andrew Nowak, the Denver-based director of the national school garden program for Slow Food USA. "People thought kids can't do this because they can't handle a harvest and handle food safely."

Now, demand is growing faster than basil.