DELMAR, Md. (AP) _ The strawberries just turning red on one Eastern Shore field here could end up on plates almost anywhere _ except on cafeteria trays just down the road.
That's because schools aren't set up to accept local produce, leading to a Byzantine national food distribution grid where apples from Maryland end up in schools in South Carolina but aren't served in local ones.
"The trouble is that major school systems, to get what they want, they deal with a wholesaler. They want a one-stop shop," Wicomico County farmer Patrick Hochmuth said.
A bill awaiting the governor's signature aims to change that. It's part of a national Farm-To-School movement that's headed to Maryland to encourage more local produce on cafeteria trays.
The twin missions of boosting local farmers while trimming fuel costs for shipping food long distances has found unanimous approval from Maryland legislators.
The bill would start a "Maryland Homegrown" week in school cafeterias and encourage schools to teach children about local agriculture through farm field trips. Some states even display posters of local farmers in cafeterias so children filing through lunch lines learn where their food comes from.
"This is a great idea," said Bobi Crispins, who grows fruits, vegetables and flowers in Millersville but doesn't sell to the three schools near her farm.
It's a lot more complicated than it sounds to get produce from across the street into a school. Schools are bound by USDA guidelines that sometimes leave them with only 90 cents per meal to spend on food. Bidding laws mean schools often aren't allowed to spend more on produce grown locally.
And schools need orders placed months in advance, and they often aren't equipped to handle simple prep work like peeling carrots or scrubbing dirt-crusted potatoes.
The limitations result in the cafeteria food everyone remembers: canned fruit salad, frozen vegetable medleys and salad bars populated by limp iceberg lettuce.
"The food services in most schools aren't usually prepared to deal with whole foods. They want something that's at least partially prepared and ready to pop in the oven," said Janet Bachmann of the Arkansas-based National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, a USDA-funded agency that promotes local foods in schools.
Maryland's bill would put educators in touch with state Department of Agriculture marketing officials to figure out how to put products like Hochmuth's berries in schools. Officials in other states have said schools and farms alike are enthusiastic about the idea of local food in cafeterias _ they just need a go-between.
"They did want to purchase local, but they didn't know whether they could or not, how would they do it, would there be the quantity, would the price be in line," said Chris Kirby, program administrator for Oklahoma's Farm-To-School Program.
Oklahoma started serving locally grown melons in a few schools in 2002, and now that state's melon program has grown to hundreds of schools.
Kirby said agriculture education and more local produce in cafeterias helps address childhood obesity, too. When kids learn about agriculture, they naturally get curious about trying new foods.
"I've seen kids get excited about beets and turnips and radishes because they pulled it out of the ground. But if you hand a kid a beet and say, 'Eat this, it's good for you,' they say, 'Eww,'" Kirby said.
There also are environmental reasons for spending more to get local produce. Relying on local food reduces the amount of fuel needed for shipping. And when schools buy locally, they can make local farmers more profitable and more likely to keep farming.
"If you support a local farmer, you're helping keep them profitable, and if you do that, you're helping preserve open space and helping the health of the Chesapeake Bay," said Mark Powell, chief of marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
The program hasn't been signed into law yet, and it's likely the state will start small with local produce in schools. But already farmers are excited about the possibility of selling to neighborhood schools.
"I think education is the best way we can sustain ourselves," said J.D. Rinehart, owner of Rinehart Orchards in Washington County. "We need to make them aware that food doesn't come from a grocery store. It comes from a farm and a grower that works tirelessly to get that food out there."
On the Net:
Read Senate Bill 158: http://mlis.state.md.us/2008rs/billfile/sb0158.htm
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.