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* U.S. schools partner with farmers to add fresh food
* Local farmers supply fresh produce, within budget
* Schools, USDA team to grow, promote farm-to-school
By Lisa Baertlein
RIVERSIDE, Calif., May 6 (Reuters) - Thousands of U.S. public school districts are teaming up with local farmers to put more fresh fruits and vegetables on lunchroom menus, without breaking budgets or getting any help from celebrity chefs.
The schools are taking early steps toward adding more fresh and homemade foods as advocated by British chef Jamie Oliver, who led a campaign to improve school lunch in his country. But inexpensive, processed foods still dominate U.S. school menus.
Proponents including U.S. President Barack Obama are pushing for a bigger investment in school meals that feed some of the country’s neediest children. The aim is to establish healthier eating habits and curb obesity rates that are driving nearly $150 billion in medical costs each year.
Nearly a third of U.S. children are obese or overweight and public health experts are warning that this generation of youth may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.
The problem is so severe it has caught the attention of the U.S. military. Last month, two retired generals said in a Washington Post column that being overweight or obese was now the top medical reason recruits were turned down for military service, and that obesity rates were threatening the future strength of the military.
Local farmer Bob Knight supplies 23 Southern California school districts with competitively priced produce, giving poor children access to products sold to upscale customers via farmers’ markets and direct sales.
“We’re taking that elite food and we’re getting it to kids who would never, ever have access to it,” Knight said.
Michelle Ratcliffe, farm-to-school program manager for the Oregon State Department of Agriculture, said schools needed more money to improve entrees in the middle of the tray -- where it is common to find processed meats and pizza loaded with fat.
To that end, U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon has joined the president and first lady Michelle Obama in calling for an extra $10 billion in funding over a decade for school breakfast and lunch programs.
“You pay more for better foods and that’s true for institutions as well. I think that has to be recognized. The return on those investments will be huge,” Concannon said.
Each day, U.S. schools serve about 11 million breakfasts and 31 million lunches.
A proposal in Congress calls for a $4.5 billion increase in funding over 10 years and would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new standards for all school food, whether it is served in a lunch room or from a vending machine.
The additional money would raise the amount schools get for each meal served to $2.74 from $2.68 and provide money for farm-to-school programs, school gardens and training.
Right now, after labor costs and overhead, schools have about $1 left per lunch to spend on food. As a result, many depend on inexpensive food like pizza, chicken nuggets and pressed meats.
While politicians wrangle over money, 15 school systems -- including California’s Riverside Unified School District, Oregon’s Eugene School District, Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools and Boston Public Schools -- are working with the USDA to strengthen farm-to-school programs already in thousands of schools.
Rodney Taylor, who made a name for himself bringing salad bars to schools in affluent Santa Monica, California, moved to Riverside Unified in 2002.
As Riverside Unified’s nutrition services director, he oversees nearly four dozen schools that serve produce from local farmers, and in some cases, from school gardens.
More than half of lunches served in the district -- in an area with some of the country’s highest home foreclosure and unemployment rates -- are free of charge or offered at reduced prices, Taylor said.
“My goal was to provide access to those students who may not have access. ... I can guarantee you that they don’t have a fruit bowl on their dining room table,” said Taylor.
All but two of the district’s 31 elementary schools have salad bars and the district’s chef is creating prepackaged salads and sandwiches made with fresh ingredients to match the preferences of older students.
Taylor said 47 percent of students in the district were eating school food in 2002. Participation is now almost 70 percent, helped by school menu promotion and the recession.
“We need to get back to more basic food, the kind like this program provides. ... I am a believer in the potential for school-based nutrition programs to help children grow up with healthy eating habits,” Concannon said during a recent Riverside visit.
Knight said the farm-to-school program helped him stay on his family farm, which is located a stone’s throw from Riverside Unified’s Emerson Elementary School.
Before he became a supplier to schools, Knight’s farm depended solely on farmers’ markets and direct sales.
“This is totally working financially,” Knight said, adding the program helped preserve farmland while giving family farms a steady market.
Ratcliffe said schools did not need to wait for more money to start making changes.
“Can we do things in the meantime? Yes, we can, and yes, we are,” she said. (Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Mary Milliken and Xavier Briand)