BRUNSWICK — For school cafeterias struggling against a tide of pink slime and tubs of processed food, the main barrier to healthier fare is typically the price tag.
“Local organic food is more expensive,” said Scott Smith, director of food services for the School Department.
Smith said he doesn’t have the budget to feed the 658 students of Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School as much local food as he would like.
But this year, Smith and the students at HBS are getting some help, in the form of a quartet of do-good bicyclists. They hope to raise $10,000 in online donations – enough money to give a local, fresh food alternative to every student, every day.
If the riders of FoodCycle have their druthers, every ounce of food consumed by a student would come from local farms. It sounds like a radical notion, but that’s the diet that most Americans enjoyed just 60 or 70 years ago, when the U.S. obesity rate was less than 10 percent, compared to the 36 percent it is today.
Adam Williams, one of the FoodCycle riders, said that he remembers the poor quality of the cafeteria food from his days as a Brunswick student.
He particularly dreaded the weekly Chinese food day.
“It was the texture, and the smell,” Williams recalled. “Everything you enjoy about eating … I did not enjoy about eating that.”
Smith said that the School Department makes an effort to provide healthy meals, and has even gone above and beyond by running promotions involving fresh, local carrots or beef from Topsham-based Bisson & Sons.
“Every year, we’ve been adding to the things that we’ve offered as far as fresh and local,” he said. “Momentum is building.”
But local food still only appears in isolated cases; in any given week, there are still undesirable food items making their way into the bellies of hungry school kids.
This month, the HBS lunch menu includes pizza pockets, pizza sticks, fish sticks, waffle sticks, and other heavily-processed items that our grandmothers wouldn’t have recognized as food.
Much of the issue comes down to dollars and cents.
Brunswick subsidizes its food program with $86,000, a year, but that number is shrinking in the face of tight budgets.
The average student only pays $2.30 for a meal, and it’s simply not possible to buy the healthiest options for that amount of money.
On April 21, the bikers will leave Brunswick on a 4,500-mile journey across the country. They will stop at a series of sustainable school gardening projects on the way to their final destination, San Francisco.
They hope to return to Brunswick with more knowledge about how to make the ideal of local foods in the school cafeteria more practical.
Smith said that $10,000 represents somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the total amount the school lays out for food, and Williams said that teaching students to eat well now will have a long-term benefit.
“These decisions of lifelong eating habits lead to health and well-being,” he said. “It has that initial effect, but then it ripples out. You’re putting money into the local economy, empowering the local economy.”
Williams also hopes to introduce a kitchen culture that will be more friendly to small, local food producers.
The School Department’s $500,000 food budget is typically allocated to a few major suppliers, not to small providers of small portions.
Smith said there are also barriers beyond cost.
“We’re working on processing and distribution,” he said. “That’s another roadblock right now. We have to go to the farm to pick it up.”
Williams said the group hopes to raise $10,000 for HBS food, and then will continue to raise money to expand the program to more schools in subsequent years.
He estimated that the money will buy 3,000 pounds of produce from local farmers, at fair market value.
That will be enough, he hopes, to put a fresh and local option in front of each student, at least a few times a week.
“I think 3,000 pounds will go the whole year if it’s planned the right way,” Williams said.
FoodCycle is partnering with local schools so that students can follow them on their trip, learning lessons on everything from nutrition to geology.
On April 21, they will depart from the farmers market area on Pleasant Hill Road and travel to Portland.
Well-wishers are encouraged to ride with them for only a few blocks, or all the way to Portland. Those who wish to ride for longer should plan to bring their own water and snacks, Williams said.