This week on Rootstock Radio, co-host Anne O’Connor speaks with Anupama Joshi, executive director and co-founder of the National Farm to School Network. National Farm to School Network is an organization that brings local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems, and Anupama has been dedicated to this work—the work of food justice—for the last two decades. Engaging with nutrition, agriculture and food systems issues around the world, Anupama has worked with the Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) of the United Nations, the Pesticide Action Network, and consulted with nonprofit organizations in Asia. She sits on the board of FoodCorps, and is a past board member of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. Anupama is also the co-author of a highly acclaimed book entitled “Food Justice.”
One reason Anupama believes schools which are making the change towards healthier meals are important is because “for many kids, that school meal is perhaps the only meal that child is going to get all day. So I think it is imperative that that meal is healthy – that meal is setting up that child for success.”
This year, NFSN held the 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Madison, Wisconsin – a biennial conference aimed at educating about bringing local foods into cafeterias beyond schools, such as hospitals and businesses, and finding ways to improve local food infrastructure to better serve these institutions.
There’s so much more about farm to school we could share with you!
Farm to School Month is coming up in October! Get started early with 5 Ways to Celebrate Farm to School Month.
Hear more about farm to school on Rootstock Radio with Deborah Kane of the USDA Farm to School Program and Miriam Grunes of REAP Food Group, which operates a flourishing farm to school program in Madison, Wisconsin, that other mid-size school systems could model.
Last, but definitely not least, read about this wonderful farm to school program in North Carolina that is bringing traditional foods into the school of a community with deep connections to their land.
Check out the full line-up of farm to school stories here on Rootstock.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Anupama Joshi, who is executive director and co-founder of the National Farm to School Network. Anupama has worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Pesticide Action Network, and consulted with various nonprofit organizations in Asia. She serves on the board of Food Corps and is a past board member of the Community Alliance of Family Farmers. On top of all that, Anupama is the co-author of a book titled Food Justice. Welcome, Anupama.
ANUPAMA JOSHI: Thank you.
AO: It’s great to have you here today. Can you start by telling us more about the National Farm to School Network?
AJ: Sure, my pleasure. The National Farm to School Network is a leading organization in the country that is building a strong farm-to-school movement across the country. We do that by way of serving as a hub for sharing information and creating information resources; having opportunities for folks to connect with each other through networking opportunities at the state level, at the regional level, and at the national level; and lastly but not the least, serving as a voice for policy advocacy, so really having a presence in state legislatures and in D.C. to promote farm-to-school and to ensure that there are policy opportunities available that can be beneficial to all communities across the country. We are able to do this as a network because we have strong partnerships with organizations across the country that serve as our regional leads and our state leads. and we have presence in every state of the country and in D.C.—we have an affiliate or a partner associated with the National Farm to School Network who really serve as the core of the network, giving information from the local level up to the national level to impact policy, and vice versa.
And when we talk about, when we say that we serve as a leading organization for farm-to-school, we really are talking about an approach that has three core elements. So the Farm to School approach has three core elements. We’re talking about local and regional products getting into school cafeterias; we are talking about local and regional procurements by school districts and by early care and education centers. Secondly, we are talking about school gardens. We are talking about, thirdly, experiential education opportunities that connect kids with the source of their foods. So food and farming education, or agriculture education, or nutrition education, that is incorporated into the curriculum that influences the way kids are thinking about food and kids are engaging with food that…
We believe that these three components together is really what makes Farm to School unique, because these three components, when they happen together, have the potential for influencing long-term changes in how children are eating in school and children are eating at home, but also have the impact of influencing, or the potential for influencing families, because we know that when kids eat something that they like or engage with something, they take the message back home. And we have lots of stories of, you know, a first-grader going back home and asking his mom, as they went through the grocery store aisle, to pick up kale or pick up broccoli, much to the shock of the mom. But these are things that are happening all across the country because of Farm to School, because kids are taking the message back home. And that’s really, eventually, the long-term goal, is that these changes are by way of schools, or by way of programming at schools, moving towards changes in our society through our families and communities.
AO: So one of the key aspects here is just getting to people when they’re young and open and receptive to trying new things, and able to see the joys and the benefits of food that tastes good and that maybe they’ve grown themselves in their school garden. So you’re really reaching an audience that has the potential to influence their family, their communities, and as they grow older, to really understand the food system in a different way.
AJ: Absolutely. And I think one thing that I should mention is that, in addition to all of these benefits that we are talking about, about kids eating healthy and their families and community being influenced, being educated about healthy, local, regional food and eating healthy, we also see benefits to farmers and local agriculture and local economies as part of this model, because farmers are finding a new market. Through Farm to School they’re finding a new market to tap into. The school food market is a significant market, institutional market that they can tap into. And once they’ve understood the school food market—which is quite complicated, honestly, in terms of procurement—they are then able to tap into other institutional markets like hospitals or colleges or institutional cafeterias where the price point is a little bit higher than schools, or quite a bit higher than schools, and it’s much easier to get into. So if they’ve cracked the school food procurement nut, then they’re certainly able to tap into other institutional markets as well and, you know, are a little more receptive to kind of going that route.
And so I think that that is an important benefit of this model as well, where it’s impacting and supporting our local farmers and supporting the local economy. We know that when local farmers are supplying to schools, there is a ripple effect in the local economy and that there are more dollars circulating within the local economy, just because of schools buying locally. And so it is a win-win-win for kids—it’s a win for kids, it’s a win for farmers, and it’s a win for our communities. So what’s not to like? It just makes sense!
AO: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Everybody benefits from it. And just to give listeners some sense of the scope of the National Farm to School Network, we’re talking about 42,587 schools participating in the network, and we’re talking about 42 percent of U.S. schools participating—you know, 23-plus million students engaged, 40 states. You’ve got an incredible network. And you’re at the head of this, and you obviously have lots of different regions and people to organize. How do you manage these different parts, and how do you know where and when to focus?
AJ: Yeah, I mean, the network is really, the National Farm to School Network is really a collaborative network. And so the work that we do is very much driven by what we are hearing from on the ground. And we hear that through our state partners, our state leads, and our regional lead agencies or our regional partners, plus we hear that from our members. So the National Farm to School Network has more than 14,000 members that are signed up on our website as members who want to keep connected with or stay connected with happenings, Farm to School happenings. So there is the regular communication from us. We also seek feedback from them on a very regular basis, to understand the barriers that they are facing and understand their perspective of what they need from us.
To me, the network is really a web of partnerships, and the magic wand here is to keep the partnership going. And partnerships are a two-way street. And so I think, from our perspective, we’ve found, as an organization, as a network, we’ve found great benefit in working with partner organizations that are already in the space, and sort of not reinventing the wheel by putting in a national network staffer in a region or in a state where already there is an organization that is working on these things. So we’ve essentially partnered with regional organizations or state organizations that are doing this work, and we are supporting them to do this work and serve as our regional lead or our state lead. I think that has been a huge benefit in how the network has been structured and how there is buy-in from our regional partners and our state leads to ensure that the network is successful, because the network as a whole is really them, you know—the regional partners, the state partners, and the various 42,000 schools that are participating in Farm to School.
So we see issues that are coming up, barriers that are coming up as major barriers. For example, right now there are issues like food safety. Schools are unclear about what kind of food safety measures they need to ask for in farmers that are supplying to schools. And so they’ve been working with the USDA closely to help articulate what are those issues, and so that there is no confusion.
AO: Can you give us an example of something like that, that it would be confusing?
AJ: Sure, absolutely. So, for example, there’s always been, for many years in the past, there has been confusion and fear, almost, in school districts that they are not able to incorporate, or they’re legally not allowed by regulation to incorporate product that is grown in their own gardens, in their own backyards, into the school cafeteria.
AO: We have gotten to this place, this crazy place that when kids grow their own food, then we’re not sure if we can use it—is that what you’re saying?
AJ: Yes, exactly, that’s what I’m saying. Yeah, it seems crazy, right? And it is in some ways fairly crazy. And so what the National Farm to School Network did a couple of years back, working with the USDA, was went to them and said, you know, this doesn’t seem right. There has to be some sort of guidance from USDA to say that this is okay, it’s okay to do so. And so a simple memo or a simple series of memos that went down from USDA, which regulates the school meal program entirely, going to schools, saying, “It’s okay to have a school garden. It’s okay to use your school’s, use products from the school, from your school garden into your school cafeteria, as long as you’re following basic food safety measures. And those basic food safety measures are really dependent on your county health guidelines. And so it’s really at the local level that these things are decided. But we are giving you the A-OK to move ahead with it. We are not going to stop you from not being able to use it.”
Huge impact! I mean, just that simple clarification was what was needed by schools to start school gardens and trying to incorporate product into the cafeteria. Many schools have gone even the next step and now have larger, not just gardening operations, almost like farm on the school site operations, which are producing significant amounts of product. Gardens, I can understand it, a smaller amount of product available that can be used for taste tests, but now schools are really ramping up their production as well. Some of them are doing that and using innovative approaches as well in situations where that’s needed—you know, hydroponics, aquaponics, things like that. And so that’s just, I think it’s just an excellent example of where clarification is what is needed to dispel some myths that are out there in the field.
AO: Yeah, and I think it’s much more meaningful also, not just for the students but for the people helping them in the gardens, to see that produce got put to use and to see it show up on their lunch plates. I know my daughter is nine, and she was just out in her school garden this week, harvesting the garlic that they planted last fall. And she’s very proud of that, and that will show up in her lunches.
AJ: Yeah, they are so proud of that. I mean, this is the fifth-graders promoting their product from the school garden that is being served to the fourth-grader and to the third-grader, which [unclear] the fourth-grader’s not going to eat it because they’re being influenced by… Yeah, exactly. I mean, that’s just the peer pressure that comes with growing your own food and being proud of it.
AO: Do you see people moving in a particular direction? You know, for example, more towards organic or sustainable practices? What’s the direction that you see things moving in?
AJ: Yeah, my sense is that, especially for schools’ food procurement, I think we’re still a long way away from the time when schools will be procuring all organic. I think we certainly are inching closer to that by way of school administrators and food service recognizing the benefits of not including food that has chemicals put on it or pesticides put on it. So I think there’s certainly a lot more education and awareness creation that can happen with school food service or with the purchasing entity at the school food level, whoever that may be, the food service director or another administrative person. A lot of education and awareness creation that needs to happen to get them to understand—understand the benefit of either buying organic or buying sustainably produced and also buying local, and helping them to see the larger benefits to the equation here.
They have one dollar for food, essentially; everything else goes for transportation and logistics type of, and equipment. And so within a dollar, what can I buy that is good quality, that my kids are going to eat, that there is less waste? I am able to access the federal reimbursement that comes along with school meal programs. And so that’s a tough equation.
AO: I was going to say exactly that word. That’s a very tough equation. And so what are the long-term benefits of taking this approach of pushing towards organic or more sustainable ways of doing this? What are those long-term benefits that you’re speaking of?
AJ: Right. I think it’s an educational and awareness creation process that needs to happen with multiple types of people, and with schools’ food service specifically, helping them think through that three-dollar, or one-third of three dollars going to food equation. Helping them see to the benefits of, in the long term, you know, what are the benefits that are going to happen to kids that are eating more sustainably produced or organic food? What are the health-care costs that our country’s going to be saving because kids are not obese, our communities are not obese? What are the diet-related diseases that we are facing that are not going to happen, because of changes in the way we are feeding our kids in schools and at home as well? What are the environmental costs that we are potentially going to be saving? What are the environmental benefits to our community within the local area but at large as well? And what are the economic benefits, honestly, for the local area? As I mentioned, we know that for schools buying locally, there is an economic multiplier effect that happens.
And in thinking about it from that longer-term perspective as well as the multi-factorial perspective is the way, I think, is the way that change is going to happen. And I find that food service directors across the country who really see that long-term benefit and are sort of visionary make this happen, make the equation happen. Despite that one out of three dollars for food, they are making it happen. And they are coming up with creative solutions to do it and balance that equation and still not go in the red. And so I think there’s creative ways of thinking about it, but there’s also a lot of education that needs to happen in getting people to look at the longer-term benefits of these type of innovative projects.
AO: I think that, you know, I’m thinking about my local community here, and the area schools have been a leader in the farm-to-school work, and they’ve had people come in and make food with the kids, and they serve it all winter long, they freeze it up and they use food from the farms here, and it’s just great. It’s been such a great, great experience. And so when you start to see those kinds of benefits too, those social benefits in addition to all the other benefits that you talked about, but it does take, right, it does take, like you say, there needs to be a process of learning and that “pay now or pay later” idea, it can be fully realized. And so there will be people who come behind it and make it happen. And we’ve seen that here, and you’ve seen it across the country, right? It can be done.
AJ: Yeah, I mean Wisconsin has been such a leader in Farm to School. And it’s fascinating to see how there’s been such a huge growth in Farm to School in Wisconsin over the last couple of years. And there’s been a coalition being set up at the state level. It’s really exciting to see.
One other benefit that I did not mention that I should mention here is the educational benefit of farm-to-school. We often hear teachers or educators mention that when kids are engaged in farm-to-school, when they are eating healthier in the cafeteria and are engaged in the garden, that they are better learners and that they are more focused in the classroom after a good, healthy meal, and that they are interested in coming to school because there are these interesting things that are happening at school. And so I think those benefits are hugely important in thinking about the future of our children.
AO: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Anupama Joshi, executive director and co-founder of the National Farm to School Network, an organization that works to bring local foods as well as food and farming education into schools and into other food service settings, like hospitals and businesses.
So, Anupama, you have been in this industry for a couple decades. And I wonder now, where do you find—you speak so passionately about these issues, and they are so complex, and there’s so many ways of seeing them. How do you keep your passion around these things? And what are you finding now at this point in your career that keeps you strongly engaged?
AJ: I think one thing that keeps me going is knowing that there is more to be done. And recently a research study that was done by the network showed us that essentially educators from low-income communities and communities of color are facing additional barriers, or perceive additional barriers to farm-to-school than if they were present in communities not of color or communities that are not as diverse. And to me, that sort of raises a question in terms of the outreach, outreach that the network and the movement needs to do, further outreach that the network needs to do into communities that are racially diverse to ensure that the benefits that we are talking about are accessible to all communities.
I mean, part of the premise of Farm to School is that it reaches all children, irrespective of race, color, ethnicity, and income. And if we are hearing from communities of color that their schools are facing additional barriers, then I think it’s our responsibility to look at it and analyze it and do something to get to the point where this is accessible to every community that wants it. It is community-driven, and so if the community wants it, there has to be a way for them to come up with a solution that works for them. And the network is here to support them.
So to me, I think that is the next step in the evolution of the network, in terms of looking at the 100 minus 42 percent of schools that are not participating. What is the issue? What is their need? And being able to meet that.
AO: Right. So, I mean, there is an enormous amount of work yet to be done. And so, right, we can think about that in all communities when we think about the issues like health issues, the rate of diabetes, those kinds of things, or the environmental issues that some communities are facing, and farm workers particularly. And then, too, some of the things that you talked about, some communities, they just really do not have access to food. And it seems shocking to many people in this country today that in 2016, you know, you could be in a community where you really don’t have…you know, if you live in a food desert, you may not have access to healthy food. And so if you’re a kid and you come to school and you learn about good food, it might be challenging in your community to find that food—to even ask your mom, when you go to the store, you know, like “Where’s the kale, Mom?”
AJ: Right. And I think that’s where any kind of school meal program that influences healthy food or makes changes towards more healthier foods is important, because for many kids, that school meal or that school lunch is perhaps the only meal that the child is going to get all day. And so it’s, I think, imperative that that meal is healthy, that meal is setting up that child for success.
AO: So if we have a listener who is recognizing their community in what you’re saying, they would be able to call the National Farm to School Network or be in contact in some way and find some resources for their community around food and agriculture. Can you tell us what else can people do in their communities to support local food, healthy food, organic sustainable processes, and the things that you are working towards?
AJ: First thing that I would suggest is to go to the National Farm to School Network website, farmtoschool.org, and become our member, join our network. It’s free of charge. Just give us your email address and that will ensure that you get regular information about things that are happening across the country and best practices.
Secondly, on that same website we have a map of the United States. You click on your state and you have direct access—you can send an email directly to your state lead, who is the National Farm to School Network affiliate in that state. When you send that email, you’ll get a response from them and address any questions that you have. That will also link you to other things that are happening in and around your community and in and around your state that you should be aware of, that you can learn from, so that your process of setting up Farm to School is as robust as possible.
And thirdly, but certainly not the last thing at all—in fact, probably the first thing that you should be doing—is engaging your own community. So let’s say you’re interested in the model and want to figure out how to make this happen. Form or invite a group of people at that school level. Invite parents, invite the food service director, the child nutrition director, the kitchen staff that are going to be integrally involved in these changes. Invite farmers that are interested in participating in farm-to-school. Invite community members. Invite teachers who are going to be engaged, perhaps garden educators or community members, nonprofits that are working in this food and farming space, to a planning meeting, to an exploratory meeting, to look at what your opportunities are and what your barriers are.
Schools vary so differently in terms of the capacity that they have to implement changes in the cafeteria or set up a garden, that it’s really important to take stock of where you are right now and set up some goals for your school, for your community, for the long term, and then start taking baby steps towards it. You know, don’t try and… My advice is always, you know, dream big but take baby steps towards it. And don’t think about changing the entire school menu right in one shot.
AO: Right, so food is very personal, and it takes a lot to change our habits. And even taking out soda machines out of elementary schools is controversial. So you know, it is a step-by-step, slowly, slowly, we can make changes.
If our listeners do want to learn more about National Farm to School Network, where should they go? You mentioned a website.
AJ: Www.farmtoschool.org, all one word.
AO: Anupama, thank you so much for all the work you’re doing across the country.
AJ: Thank you.
AO: And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. Remember, Rootstock Radio is available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you haven’t subscribed yet, it’s really easy. Just go to iTunes or Stitcher, search for “Rootstock Radio,” and click “subscribe.” See you next week!
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