Chicago Kids Reap What They Sow, but Can’t Eat It

October 21, 2010 03:25 PM (PT) Topics: Food Policy, Health, Local Food, School Lunch



Chicago boasts some of the best school gardens and greenhouses in the nation. The city’s public school system holds more than 40 agricultural operations, with kids growing everything from tomatoes to pumpkins to fresh herbs. The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, for example, features a 25-acre farm where students raise tilapia and chickens and grow produce like squash, basil, and blueberries.

The school district’s learning gardens seem like a sustainable foodie paradise. But like most things that sound too good to be true, the schoolyard farms come with a caveat: Students aren’t actually allowed to eat anything that they grow during the day, The Chicago Tribune reports. Cafeterias won’t serve up any of the hyper-local fruits and veggies, and most of the student-grown produce gets sold or given away. Talk about one giant missed opportunity.

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district and its meals provider, Chartwells-Thompson, cooked up this bizzaro, anti-produce rule. Under their regulation, student-grown produce needs to meet certain specifications in order to be served in school cafeterias. For one, student farmers couldn’t apply any pesticides or insecticides on their crops, and they could only use commercially prepared, organic compost and fertilizer in order to supply veggies to a school cafeteria.

While cutting back on chemicals is a noble goal, Chartwells-Thompson and CPS don’t require their commercial vendors to meet these same standards. In fact, produce grown by Chicago students likely contains far fewer chemical residues than fruits and veggies from industrial mega-farms. The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, for example, uses only a single pesticide on its corn. This scant use of chemicals means that schools won’t dish out the local corn, even though corn sourced by Chartwells-Thompson can come loaded with all kinds of pesticides, herbicides, and every other kind of ‘cide. Seems like this little rule was designed to ensure that Chartwells-Thompson’s wallet stays full rather than Chicago’s students’ bellies.

We all know school lunch needs a serious overhaul — nachos, chicken nuggets, and soggy pizza do not a healthy, sustainable diet make. Incorporating fresh fruits, veggies, and cage-free eggs into lunch menus would undoubtedly boost meals’ nutritional quality without costing the school district any more money than it’s already spending. It’s a win-win situation that’s rendered impossible by district regulations.

The benefits of students eating their own produce extends beyond better lunches, too. American kids notoriously don’t consume enough fruits and veggie. Studies indicate that kids who help grow crops are much more likely to chow down on fresh produce. Kathleen Merrigan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Deputy Secretary, recently co-authored a study that showcased this fact. The study found that "…children who engaged in garden-based learning did better on their standardized test scores, were more environmentally aware and were willing to try and consume more fruits and vegetables, even beyond what they saw in the garden," Merrigan told the Tribune.

So let’s add up the evidence so far: Students eating produce they grow themselves not only adds nutritious stuff to typically gross school lunches, it helps establish healthy eating patterns, allows kids to perform better in school, and makes children more environmentally aware? Anyone seeing a downside to this?

CPS and Chartwells-Thompson seem more concerned with sticking to the status quo than actually amending a rule to make meals — and, well, life — a whole lot better for Chicago’s students. Sign our petition asking the district and the food-service company to ditch their ridiculous regulation, and let Chicago’s students eat the produce that they grow.

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Photo credit: whirledkid via Flickr

Sarah Parsons is’s Sustainable Food Editor. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, OnEarth, Audubon and Plenty.

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