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Originally published Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Snohomish County opinion

Local Farms — Healthy Kids a hearty investment

Ever wonder how we can get kids to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables? Here's a crazy idea — how about offering it to them? And while we are...

Special to The Times

Ever wonder how we can get kids to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables? Here's a crazy idea — how about offering it to them? And while we are at it, we can help local farmers find more markets for their food, too.

No, this is not a dream. It is what can happen if the Legislature passes and funds a proposal called Local Farms — Healthy Kids. The bill has already passed the House of Representatives, with help from Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, among others. And, it has widespread support from dozens of groups, from the state PTA and Washington Farm Bureau to local school nutritionists and leading environmental organizations.Even with all that support, extra pressure will be needed in the closing days of the legislative session to get the funding to make the bill as effective as possible. Investing this year in local farms and healthy kids will pay big dividends in the future.

The proposal, at its core, is fairly simple: allow schools to purchase locally-grown and locally-prepared fruits and vegetables so that kids can eat better.

Local farmers support the proposal because it could help establish food-purchasing contracts with local schools. This can help provide needed income to help local farms thrive. We've already lost a lot of our farmland (and the foods grown there) and we need to turn that around.

Current state law favors large-scale bulk contracts, requires low-cost bidding and creates unmanageable red tape that can make it difficult for schools to purchase healthy produce from local farms. We should adjust these regulations, while maintaining the safeguards already in place, and make it easier for schools and other institutions to choose nutritious food from Washington's farmers, processors and distributors.

People are increasingly willing to pay a little more for good, nutritious food, especially when they can see a connection to the local community. Local Farms — Healthy Kids allows for schools and other institutions to make those choices as well. Again, it allows them — but does not require them to do so.

Making those purchases is not something that most local schools currently know how to do. The legislation would assist with technical know-how and build relationships between local growers and local buyers. By connecting local purchasers to local producers, processors and distributors, we keep dollars in the local economy.

In addition, many schools these days lack on-site cooking and preparation facilities, staff or time to prepare food from scratch. By utilizing and expanding local processing and distribution infrastructure, we can turn local crops into convenient, safe and easily consumed food. Delivering whole apples or carrots to a school versus getting those apples and carrots cleaned and sliced beforehand could make all the difference in the world.

When local carrot sticks, salads, sliced apples, and fresh broccoli and cauliflower florets are delivered just "hours-fresh," it could make the difference between being able to get kids to eat healthily or not. They're also more nutritious for our kids and better for the planet than food transported a thousand miles over a week.

A final state budget with the needed funding to help schools with the highest numbers of kids on free and reduced-price school lunches purchase local fruits and vegetables is a crucial step in advancing this policy.

Additionally, Local Farms — Healthy Kids will make it possible for people to use food stamps to purchase fresh, locally-grown food by setting up machines at farmers' markets to allow use of electronic food-stamp cards.

Finally, the legislation would set up pilot projects in some food banks to get more locally-grown fruits and vegetables into the food bank supply.

We all share great hopes for the future. A future where our local food systems help connect people sounds like a good place to start — a universal win for our children's health, our economy and our environment. Passing, and fully funding, Local Farms — Healthy Kids is one essential step, and simply the right thing to do.

Michael Bennett is president of Pacific Prepak, a local food processor and distribution company in Marysville. Joan Crooks is executive director of the Washington Environmental Council, www.wecprotects.org

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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