Monday, March 14, 2011

Farm to School meets Worker's Rights in Wisconsin

It's hard to believe how Madison has transformed in last month.  Last week my daughter asked if she could have cooking classes with me if she had to be homeschooled.     This past weekend some farmers I feel honored to know because of their commitment to feeding Wisconsin's children, and many farmers I don't know, gathered in the freezing winds for a Tractorcade in support of Wisconsin worker's rights.  This is what democracy in Wisconsin looks like:
Over 50 tractors of all shapes and sizes from all over WI
"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do."
Wendell Berry

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why Chef in the Classroom is as Important as Changing Lunch
If you have a chance to watch this video, please keep in mind that a lot of kids in this class were very reluctant to cook from scratch using fresh vegetables when we met them.  Our food was "nasty."  That changed as we got to know them and they learned that fresh food almost always tastes better.  We can make a difference in the lives of older students by helping them to learn to cook, expose them to new kinds of foods, understand where food comes from, and to think critically about their diets.  The two students in the above photo volunteered to cook breakfast for 400 people with us at the Dane County Farmer's Market.  They met a lot of farmers and cooked a lot of good food.  They inspired me to renew my interest in using classrooms for Farm to School work.  It's not going to work if we just change the lunch! 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Farm to School, Food Sovereignty and Social Justice

I have a lot of encounters with really friendly, well-meaning folks who tend to jump to conclusions about what I’m doing when I say that I work in Farm to School.  So, for the interested (and hopefully well-meaning) reader, before I outline what farm to school is, here are a few things that Farm to School is not.  Not necessarily.    
Farm to school is not organic food.  We are not a bunch of unrealistic, spaced out middle class idealists who believe all school food has to be organic.  Organic food is awesome and I purchase it whenever I can but we aim for a wide variety of farms and farming techniques.  
Farm to school is not community or school gardens or urban farms.  Farmers feed their children and purchase their new sofa sets with money from agricultural endeavors.  From my perspective, school gardens, community gardens and urban farms are incredible opportunities to increase food security in urban areas.  They are amazing  They are a critical component of a competent culture with diverse food sources, heirloom seeds, access to the visual aspects of animal care and husbandry, etc.  They do not protect our local farmers from the devastating results of globalization and megafarming.  Let me be clear.  I am not knocking organic food (which I eat) or gardens (which I love).  They augment and are related to the task at hand but are not the heart of my movement.  

Then what, pray tell, is Farm to School? Simply put, Farm to School is a movement that seeks to bring farm fresh, locally produced food onto the plates of school children.  This movement aims for the effect of saving farms and improving the nutrition of schoolchildren in one sweet, beautiful local supply chain.  The terms that most aptly apply here are food sovereignty and social justice (   
Keep our Farms. Farms, for my purposes, are worker- or family-owned, for-profit enterprises of small to mid-size that practice sustainable farming and are committed to agriculture as a career.  These are the farms that we have lost the vast majority of in WI in the last 50 years.  We are desperate to find systems that will support them.  
Save our Kids.  Farm to School is also a way for our current generation of sedentary, overweight students to develop tastes for fresh produce and a critical eye for food origins.  Using the public schools to increase the taste for and consumption of fresh produce is possibly the most genius way ensure that students that come from families with few resources and live in urban deserts with little or no access to fresh, unprocessed foods get them.  We turned a corner in our history when we decided that all children should have an equal chance to be educated.  It is just as critical of an issue now that we ensure that those kids have access to decent food.  The research is there, folks.  Nutrition=academic performance.  Time to level the playing field in the lunchroom.
So forgive me if I seem a little antsy sometimes when someone implies that I must only care about organic food.  The farmers I work with wear worn work boots from Farm & Fleet and the kids I help feed are often bouncing from foster home to foster home.  We are part of struggle.  This is a fight to keep our agricultural rights and to protect our kids.  

Friday, December 31, 2010

Farm to School Challenges of (ahem) the Year Ahead

As we move farm to school into 2011, our challenge is not to convince the people of Madison that the food in schools should get better.  The demand is there.  
I get phone calls all the time.  Lots and lots of phone calls.  I can’t answer them all, and this has been frustrating for me and I’m sure frustrating for those wonderful folks who I don’t have time to respond to with a callback.  I could get 30 phone calls a day, easy.   I have been keeping track lately and for every 10 calls on my work line there at least 3 cold-call inquiries from teachers, nurses, parents, daycare providers, and administrators.  They are all looking for “more information on how to get better food into ______ school.”  I am filled with regret and anxiety as I let yet another really nice, well-meaning college student have to look elsewhere for the interview to complete their paper on sustainability.  Then I think about the equal number of emails with similar requests.  I despair.  Really.  I’m a pleaser.
   It is kind of unbelievable that there are so many people and there is no other place for them to turn.  To the credit of these nice citizens they have gone above and beyond what others are doing and are looking for information.  To speak to their humanity, however, they are often displeased (sometimes at me) to find out that I cannot provide much more information than, “please call your superintendent, PTO, and foodservice director.”  Other than the obvious (,, I have no secret information sources.  There is no special packet.  I can do no cold calling or farmer finding on their behalves.  I cannot speak to their school or sign them up for a ready-made program. I despair.  Well, I already said I'm a pleaser.
   As the full time program director for REAP’s Farm to School programs it is all I can manage to try to figure out how our school district in Madison will ever be able to get more fresh food into our school lunch program.  The financial, logistical, and philosophical barriers seem so high.  With my position, it is never about how many hours you need to put in but how many you must shave off to balance bottomless demand with family.
     I inherited a snack program that then became so wildly successful it threatened to get out of control.  It seems that there is no end to the need for fresh, locally-sourced vegetables in ready-to-use form. When we used grant money and volunteers to step in and fill this void we created a river of desire and need. We were able to serve 5,300 students a week this fall semester but I have downsized us to around 4,000 so that we can manage to see our families. Needless to say I disappointed 1,300 students and their teachers, my daughter’s school included. I am putting my resources into Madison's poorest schools while I have them.
    When we started teaching in classrooms, cooking healthy foods with students in middle and high school, the phone calls flooded in for this incredible program to be brought to other schools, other classrooms. We are in 3 schools and the pennies are draining out of the farm to school jar as I write.  All this desperate interest and I am still starved for cash and whistling in the large, dark cavern of budget shortfalls in 2011. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Madison Farm to School in 2011

Let's start with the good stuff.  All of our volunteers, staff, Americorps, chefs, and supporters deserve to hear about all we have accomplished in 2010.  Here are some small victories this year for REAP F2S: 
VICTORY 1 Our pilot snack program grew, and grew, threatened to eat us, and shrank a bit, and now sits at just over 4,000 students in 9 elementary schools.  That will be almost 30,000 pounds of local apples, carrots, kohlrabi, red peppers, spinach, green beans, and cherry tomatoes in the 10-11 school year to name just some of our delicious fresh snacks.  This program continues to develop and mature as we continue to build relationships, offer fresh local food, and provide education to 9 schools in some of Madison's highest-needs neighborhoods. 
VICTORY 2 After 2 years of struggling to fund a snack program, Lake View Elementary got a grant to help with their snacks and Ruth Conniff, superintelligent and motivated parent, got a local snack program off the ground building relationships with the budding North Side Farmer's Market.  Ruth and Principal Kristi Kloos showed us what can be done when staff and parents embrace farm to school as a strategy for motivating kids to try new fresh fruits and vegetables with farmers, songs, and hard work.
VICTORY 3 Tory, David, Liz and Joey are getting noticed! L'Etoile, the Mermaid Cafe, the Weary Traveler and REAP's own chef educator are hard at work teaching middle and high school students to cook with fresh local food.  Family and Consumer Science teachers JoAnn Jensen of Cherokee and Natalie Aguirre of East High are taking time and resources to  incorporate our chefs into their classrooms.  Sherman Principal Mike Hernandez continues to offer generosity of spirit and support for L'Etoile's program at Sherman.  Here's to hoping that this program continues to be valued and noticed by MMSD.