Contest aims to get more local produce into school cafeterias

By Eric Galatas, Public News Service-Nebraska

Nebraska will be defending its regional title in this year's Crunch Off competition, where schools across the nation devour locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.

Justin Carter, project associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, is encouraging all school districts, and even families if kids are learning remotely, to sign up and start planting. On Oct. 22, kids will take bites of their favorite produce, and the state with the most "crunches" per capita wins.

"We encourage crunchy foods," Carter said. "The most common food used in Nebraska is apples, definitely, because we have quite a few local apples. But it could be carrots, celery, some other type of vegetable that's crunchy too."

Carter noted many Nebraska schools will plant and harvest their own food for crunching in school greenhouses. Kids who can't join their classmates can grow food at home using simple hydroponic grow tanks.

Carter said the competition is a good fit for the Center's Greenhouse to Cafeteria program, which helps schools revamp greenhouses for food production. He said in addition to learning key agricultural skills, kids are delivering food to school cafeterias with much higher nutrient content than the stuff shipped in across oceans.

"There's a huge educational piece around educating kids on where food comes from," he said. "So often, children see food as something that just arrives in a package. But helping youths realize that food is something that's grown, that's something they can produce on their own."

Ten Nebraska schools have been selected for the Greenhouse to Cafeteria program and will receive direct technical and financial support. The Center also has created a statewide peer network where teachers can share their students' green-thumb secrets.

"There's a lot of great ideas around the state. There's a lot of great greenhouse programs that are already out there," Carter said. "But I think, especially in rural areas, it can be a little easy to get isolated."

To register for the Crunch Off visit the Nebraska Department of Education's website at education.ne.gov.