Wednesday April 27, 2011 | 05:28 PM

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st, says some of the federal dollars going into the national school lunch program should go toward buying locally produced food.

The Maine Democrat’s “Eat Local Foods” bill, which she originally unveiled last year and plans to re-introduce next week when Congress returns from its spring break, would allow schools to spend 10 percent of the federal free and reduced price school lunch “commodity” funding they receive on fresh foods produced by local farmers.
 
Currently, commodities such as beef, chicken and cheese are obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which itself buys products from all over the nation and essentially services as a big supermarket from which districts get their commodities for the program.
 
But the Portland and Bonny Eagle school districts in Maine are two of about 30 districts in the country which have been given the flexibility to buy commodities from local farmers, cooperatives and other sources.
 
Ron Adams, food service director for Portland Public Schools, said that 52 percent of his district’s 7,000 students receive free and reduced price lunches. Of Portland’s $3 million total lunch program budget, about $1.1 million goes for food. About $160,000 of that goes toward commodities and of that, the Portland district spent $28,000 last year with local farmers, a figure Adams hopes to see double by the end of this school year.
 
Pingree’s legislation is modeled after these programs, and would make what they do part of the entire school lunch program nationally.
 
"We keep hearing about increases in things like diabetes and obesity in children, but if all we offer them is highly processed food for lunch, it's going to be difficult to tackle those problems," Pingree said.  "There are a lot of Maine schools trying hard to provide more wholesome menus and this bill would make it easier for them to do that."

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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