The Amazing Tale of a Farmer, His Locally Grown Carrots, and the NYC School System

Ever wonder what it would take to get a local carrot grown in upper New York State to the lunch table of a group of school kids seated in NYC? Well, it turns out to be a less than enviable task that farmer Richard Ball undertook because it seemed just oh, so simple…

Of course, when he looked on the map and realized that his farm in Scoharie County was just two and a half or three hours away from one of the largest appetites in the country it gave no hint to the thousands of miles of red tape he’d have to cross just to get to the right to truck them those few short hours.

And so it is that after nearly two years of meetings, tests and negotiations, local carrots have yet to hit the lunch tables of kids at school in NYC.
The initial premise was an easy sell. The carrot sales would help farmers who now mostly grow varieties best suited for the frozen food industry to diversify. Local carrots would be fresher, tastier and take less fuel to ship. And kids might even eat more of them, eschewing some of the less healthful snacks available on the lines of lunch rooms in schools across the country.

And in fact, there was reason to suspect that the whole thing might come off quite easily because the small bag of sliced New York apples is a genuine success story of the local food movement in schools. With the NYC school district going through several million bags of them since they were introduced in 2005, and public school children now eating four times as many apples as they used to eat.

So why not do the same thing with carrots?

Well, it turns out the variety of carrot called Sugar Snax which is widely used by growers in California simply doesn’t fare so well in NY soil. And with most of the 2,000 carrot growing acres in NY devoted to carrots of a variety better suited to processing, and with the promise of an actual contract with the school district a long way down the road there were few farmers willing to try anything new at all.

But Richard Ball was that rare farmer, and he kept at it. Finding a different variety which could be more easily processed, and in fact cut into something like a coin which would create less waste than grinding up Sugar Snax into baby carrots. They even came up with the idea of a bag decorated with carrots doing sit-ups to sell the product, and added a crinkle cut to the carrot coins themselves to help them hold some kind of dip.

The product was tried out on kids, and amazingly, they went like hot-cakes. But the district only buys food from four approved distributors, who are required by federal and local laws to seek out the least expensive product that will meet its specifications. And in fact, if a school district spends federal money on food it cannot give preferential treatment to local products, although there is a provision in the 2007 Farm Bill being debated in Congress that might fix the problem.

Ultimately, they worked through miles and miles of more red tape to find ways around the system which mandates that only the cheapest product can be used. And, as of recently, there are a whole group of people waiting in suspense for the word that the NYC school system is able to purchase locally grown carrots for the kids of New York.

I guess I wonder if the kids will even realize they’re locally grown if and when they hit the lunch table. But I certainly applaud the efforts of everyone who worked so hard to bring the carrot project this far. They’re the type of people to be thankful for on a day like today…

via:: The NYT

Tags: Farming | Local Food