Do you know where your food comes from? This is a question more and more people are asking, but when it comes to purchasing food for schools, buying local can be a challenge.
‘Alternative food systems’ is the catchphrase that has been coined for using methods aside from shopping at big box stores to get your food.
This can include supporting local farmers by buying direct or shopping at famers’ markets, using community gardens, or supporting local businesses, to name a few.
More schools are looking to use alternative food systems, and groups like the Child Nutrition Council of Manitoba and Manitoba Alternative Food Research Alliance are trying to teach educational organizations the benefits of buying local.
“Alternative food systems are important in school nutrition programs because they help us move from a short-term emergency food system to a long-term system that includes equality,” explains Forrest McGregor, a researcher with the Council.
McGregor, who has been looking into how schools currently use alternative food systems and how that usage can be increased, presented on the subject at the Growing Local conference last Friday.
But in some cases using alternative food systems is such a new concept that implementing it can be difficult.
For example, some educators would like to move towards utilizing alternative food systems in their classrooms and programming, but administrative policies can make it almost impossible.
Bragi Simundsson owns Prairie Grass Fed Meats in Arborg, Manitoba. A few years ago he met a home economics teacher who was interested in purchasing Simundsson’s beef for use in the classroom – but school district regulations made that impossible.
“It came down to the point that they didn’t want to take on the liability of dealing with someone who wasn’t in retail,” he explained.
Simundsson’s meat is sold at Vita Health – the teacher could have purchased it from the store without a problem. But purchasing directly from the farmer – and cutting out the middle man – wasn’t a possibility for legal reasons.
Furthermore, that teacher could easily have bought beef from a big box store – which could be more likely to sell beef contaminated with E. coli or worse.
All beef sold in Canada comes under the same set of regulations, no matter what the cattle is fed or where they are slaughtered. Although safety is his top concern, Simundsson believes these industrial-sized regulations are not necessary with small, independent farms.
“Cows aren’t carnivores, they’re herbivores,” he says. “There’s no place for recycled animal proteins in a ruminant diet.”
But there are many reasons aside from administrative policies that can mean schools have a hard time using alternative food systems, McGregor says.
For example, in some cases the individuals who run the breakfast programs are volunteers without a lot of extra time. Or perhaps the costs can be prohibitive. Or many times the organizers just don’t know where to look. There are also barriers from the farmers’ perspective – including too little sales volume.
Despite these challenges, some schools are moving towards using more sustainable and local options. Sisler High School’s home economics class uses sustainable ingredients including veggies they grow in their own garden, and has won the Localvore Iron Chef Cook-Off two years running.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can introduce alternative food systems into your school, contact the Child Nutrition Council at 204-453-6060. You can also join Food Matters Manitoba’s Dig In Challenge, which has a program specifically for schools.