By Carolyn Barbre

It's no secret that obesity is on the rise for school children along with the rest of the population.

This not only creates health problems such as childhood diabetes, but it also becomes a huge self-esteem problem that can cause lifelong scars. Fast foods have historically been anathema to healthy diets, while the computer generations successively get less and less exercise in what was once thought would be a utopian push-button society. Unless one makes a determined effort to exercise, for a majority of Americans it can, for the most part, be avoided altogether.

Far too often it seems that schools have failed to investigate better sources of nutritious food, instead opting for speed and convenience while always keeping an eagle eye on the bottom line.

At the December CAFF (Community Alliance with Family Farmers) breakfast meeting at the Olive Tree Restaurant, the guest speaker was Gwen Huff, the Northern San Joaquin Valley Regional Coordinator for CAFF. Her topic was Buy Fresh Buy Local, which has grown into Farm to School, succeeding campaigns to make healthier food available while supporting family farms.

Huff said the Farm to School program actually started in Santa Monica. "They wanted a fresh salad bar in their schools," she said. Huff said someone suggested they should have a side-by-side salad bar, with one using farm fresh produce and the other using non-local salad fixings.

"Kids won't touch it without a promotion," Huff said, so they went into the classrooms and showed the children how to experience the food and discover new tastes. "Now the whole school district has farmers market salad bars." She said the down side for growers was that the entire Santa Monica School District only spends $25,000 a year on its salad bar ingredients.

"It's not that much money," she said, but CAFF likes the Farm to School program because it includes ag education and farm visits. "It teaches kids where foods come from, to combat marketing fast foods - the golden arches."

Huff said the non-farming community doesn't care about farms, but they do care about nutrition. "Our angle is not just to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables, but to increase the local fruit and vegetable market." She gave the example that many school lunches include apples, but Washington apples have decimated the market for local apples. "We have all tasted pithy apples," she said, so in Merced CAFF bought local apples and promoted consumption in one school. She said they were crisp, and a slightly different variety from the Washington apples.

"Kids like small apples. Packing houses like big apples." She said not only were the regular apples poor in taste, but so big that there was a lot of waste. "Buy Fresh Buy Local reflects the seasons [of the year] too."

Huff said Ventura was most advanced in the Farm to School arena with seven schools in the program. She noted that school food service directors have a short time to do their ordering. She said this is where CAFF steps in, finds the growers and works out the billing and delivery system. CAFF charges $1-$2 for delivery above the farmers' costs.

But they have been performing these services with grant funds. Huff said the critical question was whether the Farm to School and Buy Fresh Buy Local could be self sustaining without outside funding.

She said the San Joaquin Valley was problematic in that it is not an affluent area, certainly not compared to Santa Monica or even Ventura. She said there are a lot of people here on assistance. "Farmers markets don't go here, because they go for high-end consumers." Huff said another problem was that even though farmers are all around the Valley, access to local food is not readily available because of the distribution system.

And finally, people in the inner cities have no access. If they are really poor, they don't have cars and must use a bus or go to the corner market/liquor store. Schlepping bags of groceries on a bus is definitely not a fun outing.

Huff said in Fresno they are integrating a new component, "Point-of-Sale" in the community, with either a mobile unit selling the locally grown fruits and vegetables, or holding a one-day farmers market. "I'm telling you, nutrition is where it's at for urban consumers. Talk about 'Five-a-Day' but if a kid is given a bad peach with no flavor, they will say, "I guess I don't like peaches.' They are no competition to a Pepsi or a Snickers bar. But you can't buy a good peach through the distribution system because they have to be durable in the distribution system."

Huff said in Fresno the African-American farmers grow soul food while Southeast Asian farmer grow specialty crops. She said the population in Southwest Fresno is one-third Southeast Asian, one-third Hispanic and one-third black. She said along with point of sale, they are combining an education program about nutrition, gardening and how to cook the produce.

A question and answer session followed. Local CAFF members are predominantly citrus growers and the general consensus was that because of contracts with packing houses, it would be essentially more trouble that it was worth to take any acreage out of those contracts for local sales. There was a suggestion that oranges could be bought back from the packing houses after they were packed. CAFF Lighthouse Chapter president Cliff Loeffler said, "Sunkist is making rumblings in that direction anyway. They want more brand recognition, but it's such a Byzantine Empire. . . and school districts have labyrinths of their own - 'It's always been done this way,' or 'Our computers are set up this way.'" He said it would take time, but getting a grant would get it started. Loeffler said, "It's about forming relationships with these people and creating trust - not just buzz words."

Huff said getting in the door is difficult and the bottom line is a big deal, "but obesity and diabetes gets their attention." She said that was how they couched the language to get the grant for Fresno, making it not about the growers, but about the kids. "Anyway, we're going to go ahead and get this grant done. I will probably be working with you," she concluded.

The next meeting of the Lighthouse Chapter of CAFF is at 7 a.m. on Jan. 13 at the Olive Tree Restaurant on Highway 65 in Lindsay.

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What is the Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign?

CAFF has developed the Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign as program to strengthen regional markets for family farms. CAFF is working with schools, farmers markets, retailers, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and restaurants to encourage them to participate in the campaign.

How it works:

  • Farmers sign up to participate, which means they will be identified on the shelf at the market or are able to use the label and other materials on their own.

  • Retailers sign up to participate - labeling local farms products in their stores.

  • Community members sign up to participate - helping CAFF get the word out about local farms and farming.

    Five reasons to Buy Local

    1. Local produce tastes better and it's better for you.

    A recent study showed that fresh produce loses nutrients quickly. In a weeklong (or more) delay from harvest to dinner table, sugars turn to starches, plant cells shrink, and produce loses its vitality. Even in California, produce may have traveled surprisingly far to get to your grocery store. Food grown in your own community was probably picked within the past day or two. It is crisp, sweet and loaded with flavor.

    2. Local food supports local farm families.

    Fewer than one million Americans now claim farming as their primary occupation (less than 1 percent of the population). Farming is a vanishing lifestyle. And no wonder: the farmer today gets less than 10 cents of the retail food dollar. Local farmers who sell directly to consumers cut out the many middlemen and get full retail price for their food, which means farm families can afford to stay on the farm, doing the work they love.

    3. Local food protects genetic diversity.

    In the modern industrial agriculture system, produce varieties are chosen for their ability to ripen simultaneously and withstand harvesting equipment. Shippers demand produce with a tough skin that can survive packing, transport, and a long shelf life in the store. Only a handful of hybrid varieties of each fruit and vegetable meet those rigorous demands, so there is little genetic diversity in the plants grown. In contrast, local farmers that sell direct to you or direct to your local restaurants and grocery stores grow a huge number of varieties selected because they have the best flavors, provide a long harvest season, and come in an array of eye-catching colors. Many varieties are heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation because they taste good. These old varieties contain genetic material from hundreds or even thousands of years of human selection. They may someday provide the genes needed to adapt to a changing climate.

    4. Local food preserves open space, and supports a clean environment.

    As the value of direct-marketed fruits and vegetables increases, selling farmland for development becomes less likely. A well-managed family farm is a place where the resources of fertile soil and clean water are valued. Good stewards of the land grow cover crops that prevent erosion and replace nutrients used by their crops. Cover crops also capture emissions and help combat global warming. In addition, the patchwork of fields, hedgerows, ponds and buildings is the perfect environment for many beloved species of wildlife. That landscape will survive only as long as farms are financially viable. When you buy locally grown food, you are doing something proactive about preserving the agricultural landscape.

    5. Local food is about the future.

    By supporting local farmers today, you can help ensure that there will be farms in your community tomorrow, and that future generations will have access to nourishing, flavorful and abundant food.

    Why are Buy Fresh Buy Local campaigns important?

    The campaign is promoting existing Community Supported Agriculture farms through media and public outreach. In addition it provides technical assistance to farmers who want to start CSAs. Our staff assists in the development of ag tourism, assess the needs of local farmers' markets and conduct media and public outreach to promote them, and link local farms directly with school food services.

    CAFF's most critical work is to help small and mid-sized farmers survive the consolidation and globalization of the food system.

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