Sen. Sherrod Brown serves up local-lunch bill for schools

By Tom Troy
The Toledo Blade
BrownSchools that get federal funds to provide lunches would be encouraged to buy locally grown produce under his proposed farm bill, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) said an an event in a downtown Toledo arts school Thursday.

With some 130 students in the sixth-to-12th-grade Toledo School for the Arts charter school eating their lunch in the background in the school’s Flying Pigs Cafe, Senator Brown said his proposal would boost local farmers, help the local economy, and improve the environment.

The question is whether the $120 million-per-year initiative will make it through a politically divided Congress.

Senator Brown joined with Toledo restaurateur Marty Lahey and two area farmers, Andy Keil of Swanton and Liz Bergman of Genoa, Ohio, to promote the legislation.

The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act would allow school districts to spend a portion of federal funds for free and reduced school lunches on locally grown fruits and vegetables, rather than U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities.

“By increasing access to fresh local foods, we can expand markets for Ohio’s agricultural producers while improving health, creating jobs, and strengthening our economy,” Mr. Brown said.

According to Mr. Brown, the act would cost up to $2 billion over 10 years and would be paid for by phasing out an estimated $22 billion in farm subsidies. The proposal passed the Democratic-controlled Senate last year but was not acted on by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, so the bill expired. Mr. Brown said committee work to reintroduce the bill and try again to pass it starts next week.

Mr. Lahey, owner of Manhattan’s Restaurant, caters lunches at the Toledo School for the Arts and six other schools.

“We’ve seen a growing demand in the restaurant for fresher, more local fruits and vegetables,” Mr. Lahey said. “The bill the senator’s talking about would help move in that direction.” He told the students that watermelons that were on the menu in the fall came from Mr. Keil’s farm.

Other aspects of the bill are to help small farmers buy crop insurance and enable seniors to use senior food stamps to pay for local produce at farmers markets. Ms. Bergman, owner of Sage Organics, said Mr. Brown’s legislation would assist local farmers by addressing production, aggregation, processing, marketing, and distribution needs.

“The next step to help build a vibrant food economy in Northwest Ohio is to develop large wholesale options for our farmers,” Ms. Bergman said. That means being able to place local produce in universities and other institutions.

Senator Brown said deficit concerns and the implementation of $85 billion in automatic cuts mandated by the sequester ought not prevent the program from getting off the ground.

“We’ve cut almost $2 trillion in spending in the last two and a half years. We should be funding some of these things that people want,” Senator Brown said. Mr. Brown, now in his second term, is the first Ohioan to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in more than four decades, according to his staff.