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City schools urged to buy local with its $14M food-purchasing power

Mike Desmond

Buffalo Public Schools prepare 28,000 lunches, 25,000 breakfasts and 5,000 snacks a day. Activists are calling for legal changes to allow greater variety in school food and easier ways to buy food produced locally.

The school system spends nearly $14 million a year buying food, giving it leverage in the market. More food comes free through federal programs. There are so many kids of poverty in the school system that everyone is eligible for free breakfasts and lunches, often the only meals the students get.

The Partnership for the Public Good has just released a report calling for essential changes in the way food is purchased to buy more locally and flexibly. The Partnership said there are legal and procedural and bureaucratic difficulties that can be worked out to provide healthier food for the diverse student population.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Partnership Executive Director Sam Magavern said there are a lot of advantages to seasonal local purchasing.

"That's one of the five pillars of the good food movement with schools, is more locally-sourced produce, because it's good for the local economy. It's good for the farmers. It's good for the kids, because it tends to be healthier, fresher food," Magavern said. "So, yeah. absolutely, that's part of the goal, support the local farmers."

Community Health Worker Network Director Jessica Bauer Walker said locally planned food is important in heavily immigrant schools like PS 45 with different food traditions.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"Types of dishes that we can get on the menu. A lot of our families are more familiar with things like rice and noodles versus sandwiches, burgers or pizza," Walker said. "So it's actually a good opportunity and so, when we have experimented with those types of dishes that might be more culturally familiar, it goes over really well with our student population, even the students who are from here because they're tasty."

There still remains the problem that kids might like pizza rather than food that is better for them.

Activists like Rebekah Williams from the Massachusetts Avenue Project say lots of education about food is needed for kids.

District Food Services Director Bridget O'Brien-Wood said the district tries to resolve some of that by making fruits and vegetables readily available for those who don't want meat and providing Islamic halal food in two schools. O'Brien-Wood said cafeteria food has changed drastically.

"Twenty-five years ago, we were serving pork. We were making food from scratch, but it was one choice and that's all they got," she said. "It has evolved to more choices and different kinds of food. So that's what we're looking to do today and in the future."

O'Brien-Wood said food suppliers are also flexible on what they supply.

"Chicken nuggets are in the shape of dinosaurs and potatoes are in the shape of smiley faces, but little kids love them and we found that the high school kids love them," she said, "and what we get in the school lunch program is a better nutritional value than what you are getting in the grocery store because the USDA mandates that."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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