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From December 13, 2005                                                                                                           

Organic Lunch Now Served at Some Schools
(Beyond Pesticides, December 13, 2005) Organic lunches are now being served in some schools in Washington State. While it may sound like a nutritionist’s dream it is reality at the Lincoln Elementary School. According to an Associated Press (AP) story the school’s organic salad bar has proven so popular and economical that all Olympia grade schools now have one.

Lincoln elementary eleven year-old student Cameron Landry said, "The food is pretty good. And it's much better because you actually have a choice," Landry continued as he chowed down on salad. "Otherwise, it's 'eat this or nothing!'"

Although fried chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers still reign supreme in most cafeterias, a small but growing number of schools are turning to organic food as a way to improve children's health and fight obesity. Children who eat a diet of organic food show a level of pesticides in their body that is six times lower than children who eat a diet of conventionally produced food (See Daily News). A study from Emory University found that an organic diet given to children provides a "dramatic and immediate protective effect" against exposures to two pesticides that are commonly used in U.S. agricultural production (See Daily News).

In 2004 the Seattle school district adopted a Breakfast and Lunch Program Procedure (H61.01), which is a policy banning junk food and encouraging organic food in school cafeterias. California school districts in Berkeley, Santa Monica, and Palo Alto also have organic food programs. Due to a program sponsored by the organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, schools in Rhode Island, California, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Connecticut have or are getting new vending machines stocked with all-organic treats. Stonyfield is not the first company to sponsor organic food programs.

Stonyfield’s program was conceived entirely by president and CEO, Gary Hirshberg. For Hirshberg, the wake-up call came when he asked his teenage son what he'd eaten at school one day. "Pizza, chocolate milk and Skittles," was the reply. Thus his campaign to put organic foods in schools was born. Stonyfield Farm stocks schools with refrigerated vending machines that sell healthy treats such as Newman's Own Pretzels, Stretch Island Organic Fruit Leather, Silk Soy Milk, and of course Stonyfield Farm Fruit Smoothies.

Stoneyfield is not the first, several years ago the national organic food company Horizon Organic went into the classroom and school cafeteria with two programs designed to educate teachers, kids and their families about the environmental and health benefits of organic production (See Daily News).

"This is the beginning of the sea change," predicted Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. "Unfortunately, it's coming at the same time school districts all over the country are squeezed by a fiscal crisis."

Cost is considered the biggest hurdle to getting organic food in schools (See Daily News). Organic food, produced without pesticides, growth hormones or other additives, generally costs more. That's a tough sell when schools are struggling to pay for books and teachers.

Although some feel cost is an issue, Lincoln Elementary has managed to cut its lunch costs, by two cents per meal, while offering a full organic menu. Eliminating dessert, though initially unpopular with students, covered most of the added cost of organic meals. According to Lincoln’s principal, Cheryl Petra, "Our kids don't need dessert, they have all this great fruit. She's been pleasantly surprised that students and parents across the district have embraced the program.

Petra went on to say, "It's about a long-term investment in the health of our children. We are the responsible adults. We can do this," Petra said, gesturing to the crowd of children around the organic salad bar.

The Olympia parent who sparked Lincoln's meal makeover is becoming something of a Johnny Appleseed for organic school lunches. Vanessa Ruddy first proposed organic menus when her son was at Lincoln elementary, and was pleasantly surprised to find school district officials were receptive. She's spoken to parents and school officials from around the country about the idea. "The desire is there," she said. "It's something for the whole country to follow."

Her son just started middle school, and when she went to a meeting at the school last week she noticed all the teachers looking at her. Ruddy said, "The first thing they asked was, 'Can you do something about the school lunch program?'"

TAKE ACTION: Ask your child's school to include organic menus. Whenever possible, buy organic food for your family.