It was the second week of June in 1995, and we had just scored several flats of Connecticut early season strawberries. The excited Hartford Food System staff had arranged the delivery to the city’s three pilot farm to school sites – two elementary and one middle school – and was anxiously awaiting the expressions of joy on the students’ faces. Eyes did indeed widen, many out of bewilderment as this was their very first fresh strawberry experience, and many out of embarrassment over the trickles of red juice leaking from the corners of their mouths. While the perceived ecstasy levels didn’t quite match our expectations, student feedback assured us that these gorgeous strawberries were almost as good as the ersatz chicken nuggets that dominated their cafeteria plates. Well, we surmised, this may take a little longer than we thought.
But the more discouraging response came from the school food service staff. When we asked them how easy the preparation was, they gave us a stunned look, “It was terrible!” they exclaimed to a person, “It took forever to cut the green stems off.” When we told them they didn’t have to do that – they were the “handles” the children grasped to eat strawberries – they looked back at us like we were crazy. Well, we realized, this will take a lot longer than we thought.
Hartford’s farm to school program, the nation’s first as best as I can tell, would grow throughout the state by fits and starts. A school district here and there would buy some apples from a local orchard, have a minor problem, and then decide it wasn’t worth the extra work. As a statewide initiative, farm to school limped along for a number of years until state legislation in 2006 directed the Connecticut Department of Agriculture to assist farmers and school districts in connecting with each other. According to USDA’s 2012 farm to school census, 80 Connecticut school districts (a little over half) serving 278,000 students now participate in farm to school. The total school food purchases in Connecticut are $30 million per year, $3 million of which now comes from local farms. The Connecticut Department of Agriculture states on their website that over 50 farms participate in the program.
Just two weeks ago, 1100 farm to school enthusiasts congregated under what felt like a revival tent in a downtown Austin, Texas conference center for the “7th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference.” They came to celebrate the explosive growth in all ways imaginable that locally produced food has found its way into institutional cafeterias. Organized by the National Farm to School Network, the faithful heard from Deborah Kane, USDA’s Farm to School Program Director who confirmed the gospel’s word is indeed spreading across the land. From its very humble beginnings in a few schools in the 1990s, Director Kane told us that 38,629 schools (a little over one-third of the nation’s schools) serving 21 million students have farm to school programs. And the economic and policy impacts are not to be sneezed at: over $354 million dollars of the multi-billion dollar school food purchases are going to local farmers, and 46 states have proposed or passed some kind of farm to school legislation.
One of those successful policy states is New Mexico. Starting over 8 years ago, the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council began pushing the state education department to get junk food out of the schools. Their advocacy led to a substantial revision in New Mexico’s nutrition rules which slammed the door on the sugar and fat crowd and opened the door to local fruits and veggies. And like a persistent wind that wears down the rock, the Council spent several years clawing a $325,000 annual appropriation out of the state legislature to purchase local food. This made New Mexico one of the few states to directly fund such purchases (Oregon is another having appropriated $1.17 million in 2013 for the same purpose). Today, three-quarters of New Mexico’s school districts are buying over 300,000 pounds of local produce, and by 2015, it is expected that all the state’s schools will participate.
As promising as this sounds, I have two concerns about the farm to school movement. Take New Mexico, for example, which ranks 50th in the nation when it comes to state government spending on public school education. Thirty percent of the public school students never graduate from high school – a number that’s higher in low-income school districts – and only 50 percent of the state’s students are proficient in reading and 42 percent in math. Poor performance in post-secondary education, the workforce, and life itself are the results, and certainly contribute to New Mexico’s equally high poverty rate. How will $325,000 in purchases of local food help this situation? The answer is probably not at all, not unless local food advocates also own the failures of our nation’s public education system and view the failures in school cafeterias as just one symptom of those larger failures.
As ardent a lover as I am of the sweet notion that school children should be eating local food in their cafeterias, I find myself bewildered at times by the frenzied support that farm to school churns up. In light of the decades-long downturn in U.S. public school education, farm to school advocates must step out of the warm and fuzzy glow of happy children crunching local apples to embrace the dark side of the America’s sorry education story. When you appear, for instance, at a legislative hearing to speak in favor of funding for local food purchases, you should also appear at hearings to speak even more loudly in favor of adequate school funding.
My second beef (which has nothing to do with the conference workshop “Local Meat for School Lunch”) is directed at the question of whether or not the food movement is becoming fragmented by an over-emphasis on developing specialized segments. Like the food hub movement which just had its own conference about one month ago, or the anti-hunger movement that held their conference in early March – subsets, in other words, of what should be a larger, comprehensive initiative for food system change – farm to school is carving out its territory with a national network, conference, branding, and federal staff and funding.
Rather than connecting the many and important dots that populate the food system, and achieving some real synergy in the process, we are making each dot so large that its circumference becomes an impregnable border fence rather than a permeable membrane capable of merging with other dots.
I can’t but wonder if we are aren’t forging an allegiance to the parts rather than the whole. Yes, bigger tents are hard to build, and they sure flap around a lot in strong winds, but when standing firm and tall on a broad field they make a bolder statement than many little ones that can be picked off easily by hungry wolves.
Since the Farm to Cafeteria Conference was in Austin, it was mandatory that the former Secretary of the Texas Department of Agriculture, Jim Hightower deliver an inspiring keynote. He regaled the crowd with his progressive brand of Texas humor, and as one of six progressives in the state of Texas, I’m sure he enjoyed the crowd’s enthusiastic response as much they enjoyed him. But in addition to his folksy zingers (my favorite being his disparagement of Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz: “one-hundred thousand sperm and you were the fastest?”), his underlying message to the farm to schoolers was about public policy. He made it clear that this was the way to remedy many of the evils confronting America, and if we go soft on those who want to go hard on government, public budgets, and all the things that level this country’s increasingly uneven playing field, we’ve got to enter the policy fray. “Policy got us into this mess,” he said, “but it can also get us out of it.”
When it comes to the farm to school wins we’ve achieved over a two-decade long struggle, we have to recognize that many of them were achieved through engagement with food-ignorant local school boards, recalcitrant food service directors, unsupportive state departments of agriculture and education, and an indifferent Congress – the faces of public policy. It’s time to extend that engagement to other spheres of policy as well as the other segments of the food movement. We’ll be stronger together than we will be alone, and winning back the cafeteria should only be the first victory in winning the battle for a system of public education that nurtures the mind as well as the body.