School-Grown Food for Lunch: Against the Law?

Photo by Pepino. See link below.

Here in California, a school garden makes an ideal outdoor classroom throughout the year, offering a fun and interactive way to teach students about science, nutrition, math, collaboration, and more. School gardens are sprouting up all over the state, ranging from just a single small bed with a few plantings to more elaborate gardens and orchards filled with fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

With escalating obesity rates and growing interest in “eating local,” many schools are looking to add their schoolyard harvest to cafeteria lunches. But school administrators may be wary of the prospect, citing concerns about food safety, sanitation, and state and federal rules about school meals.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) even issued an official memo several years ago, stating that its school cafeterias can’t use school garden produce because the food doesn’t come from an “approved source.” The district’s claim, however, was based on a misreading of state law, and relied on an outdated provision in the first place. In fact, the state code the district cited only requires that fresh produce come from sources that “comply with all applicable laws.” Even if the provision did apply, it would be easy to meet just by transporting any school garden produce in leak-proof, washable containers.

And there are no other state requirements that should keep schools from serving school-grown produce in the cafeteria. In California, school cafeterias are governed by what’s known as the California Retail Food Code (part of the state’s Health and Safety Code), designed to ensure that food provided to consumers is “safe, unadulterated, and honestly presented.” It requires that produce from any source be washed thoroughly to remove soil and other contaminants, and that any chemicals used to wash or peel produce meet certain requirements. But as long as proper handling requirements are followed, there is nothing stopping the use of produce from a school garden.

What’s more, the federal government actually encourages garden-to-cafeteria programs. Congress recently made a strong show of support for garden-to-cafeteria programs when it passed the “Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act” in December 2010. With this new law, the Secretary of Agriculture is now required – not just permitted – to provide competitive grants and other support to schools to implement farm-to-school programs making local foods more accessible, and the law specifically states that these grants can be used to develop school gardens.

Most school cafeterias are subject to requirements for participating in the National School Lunch Program, which gives public and nonprofit private schools cash subsidies and food donations for student lunches as long as the schools satisfy certain criteria – for instance, meeting minimum nutritional requirements, offering free or reduced-price meals to eligible students, and using foods donated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as much as possible. None of that rules out the use of school garden produce in school meals.

Individual school districts or private schools might pass their own policies: in Chicago, for instance, the public school district explicitly prohibits cafeterias to use fruits and vegetables grown at the schools. (The produce must be sold or given away instead.) But in the absence of a local policy like this one, there are no legal obstacles for California schools looking to include garden produce in their meals.

A garden-to-cafeteria program can be as simple as adding school-grown greens or tomatoes to a school salad bar, or a more formal district-wide initiative to incorporate a variety of garden produce into the menu. In California, where students can grow and eat nutritious foods all year long, a garden-to-cafeteria program can help cultivate healthy eating habits that last a lifetime.
Karla Hampton is a staff attorney at Public Health Law & Policy (, a nonprofit research and training center based in Oakland, California.

Photo by Pepino via flickr.

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