Whatcom Farm-to-School: Tackling Food System Challenges One Lunch at a Time
by: Whatcom Farm-to-School Support Team: Mardi Solomon & Holly O’Neil Posted on: September 16, 2012
Photo: David Westerlund
By Mardi Solomon & Holly O’Neil, Coordinators, Whatcom Farm-to School Support Team
Editor’s Note: Eating healthy foods should not be a privilege only enjoyed by fortunate children. Read about what’s being done to provide local, healthy food to local public schools.
In 2009, the Whatcom Community Foundation’s Sustainable Whatcom Fund Committee (SWFC) launched a farm-to-school (F2S) initiative in Whatcom County, creating the Whatcom Farm-to-School Support Team. The F2S Support Team works with community stakeholders, school Food Service Directors, farmers, and parent-teacher-student groups. Together, we are addressing barriers, launching new projects, and facilitating relationships between farms and schools. These efforts aim to:
- Provide children and their schools with more fresh, nutritious foods.
- Improve children’s health and encourage lifelong healthy eating habits.
- Support Washington farmers and help preserve our local agricultural land base.
- Reduce energy use, waste, and climate change pollution by decreasing food packaging, refrigeration, storage, and transportation.
- Promote awareness of how food choices impact our health, our communities, and the environment.
It seems like it should be a simple and obvious thing to serve locally grown, healthy, fresh food to children in school meals. In reality, however, farm-to-school is a complex equation requiring re-examination of the whole food system. [Download a map of our food system here.]
For those of you who have not had a school meal recently, lunch ladies and gentlemen do a valiant job of meeting increasingly demanding USDA nutrition guidelines, with a budget of about $1.10/lunch. Meals typically include “heat & eat” processed foods that resemble fast food (e.g., chicken nuggets & burgers), milk, and an array of fruits and vegetables that have traveled long distances and been cleaned, chopped, preserved, and bagged.
The story of how school meals evolved to their current state is an interesting one, described beautifully in the book Free for All by Janet Poppendieck. As she explains,
Our spectacular failure to provide fresh, appealing, healthy meals for all our children is the result of a series of specific and identifiable social choices that we have made: a massive disinvestment in our public schools, an industrialized food system, an agriculture policy centered on subsidies for large-scale commodity production, a business model rather than a public health approach to school food programs. Concern about obesity among American children and adolescents, however, has created an opportunity to transform the way we feed our children at school… parents, educators, public health professionals, and legislators have joined school food service personnel, anti-hunger activists, and community food security advocates in demanding better, healthier meals.
Over the last ten years, there has been a groundswell of interest and concern about child nutrition in the USA, and farm-to-school programs have sprouted up in over 10,000 schools spanning all 50 states. In the northwest corner of our state, we have a lot going for us. We have an abundant agricultural land base and amazing support from local philanthropists, Washington State Department of Agriculture, and Washington State University Agriculture Extensions. We have support at the federal level as well, with several new national initiatives to increase children’s access to healthy food, including the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.
In Whatcom County, one of the key ingredients to jump-starting interest in farm-to-school was the Whatcom Community Foundation’s SWFC, which provided funding for over 30 F2S pilot projects. These projects helped spur creative development of strategies for increasing local food in schools, marketing these efforts, and educating students and families about healthy choices. The SWFC’s support also has been key to the success of the Harvest of the Month program, initiated in 2011-12, in which all public schools in Whatcom County feature a locally grown fruit or vegetable in at least one lunch, once a month. The meals are complemented by a full range of education and outreach materials, including cafeteria posters and taste-test experiences, classroom slideshows, material for school menus, and flyers to go home to families. In addition, the F2S Support Team works closely with SWFC-supported programs that are dedicated to ensuring all students have hands-on experiential education about growing, harvesting, and preparing healthy garden-fresh food. SWFC grants have also provided school kitchens with some needed equipment and training to increase comfort and efficiency in working with fresh produce and scratch cooking.
One of the most exciting elements of Farm-to-School is the ripple effect it has created in the community. In Whatcom County for example, it became clear early on that in order to address the many challenges of increasing local food purchasing by schools, and working toward the other broad goals listed above, we needed to take a systemic approach. In 2011, over 30 organizations began joining forces to establish the Whatcom Food Network. The Network is helping to increase coordination, communication, and cooperation among all the organizations working on our regional food system. We are deepening our understanding of the steps required to move food from farm to cafeteria, identifying the gaps in infrastructure (e.g., food processing), and working together to fill them.
The Network has also helped to spread the educational messages of farm-to-school to the whole community. The Harvest of the Month program is being duplicated by senior centers, seed to table education resources are being used by agencies serving adults and children with special needs, the local food co-op is promoting the Harvest of the Month items in its stores, and the County Library system has helped to co-sponsor a contest, and joined several other organizations in hosting a food film festival with a F2S theme.
All together, the efforts of schools, farmers, and all the organizations spreading the word about local food and healthy eating deserve a big round of applause, but most importantly, let’s take a moment to thank the kids. Countering all myths to the contrary, we now have proof – kids do enjoy fruits and vegetables! The Kids Eat Kale contest, sponsored by the SWFC, invited children to try kale in as many different ways as they could, and photograph themselves eating it. One of the winners, Finley Bell, age 8, ate kale in 22 different ways! The Persuade Picky Pat contest had entrants submit an essay and drawing to convince “Picky Pat” to try a new fruit or vegetable. Kids wrote so many compelling essays, it was hard for the judges to choose! The next contest will be for kids who want to make a short video, showing us why we should all eat more local, healthy food!
To achieve the broad goals of F2S, we must continue efforts to rebuild local food production, processing, and distribution infrastructure to make it possible for schools and other institutions (e.g., the hospital, university, jail) to increase purchases of locally grown produce. In addition, we must continue educating our community about the many benefits of eating fresh local food. Most importantly, as we work in concert with other communities in Washington State and across the nation to make needed changes to our food system, we must ensure that these changes will be sustainable over the long-term. For the F2S program, that means integrating the essential elements of seed to table education throughout the school curriculum so that children become more aware of how their food choices impact their health, the community, and the environment. And it means paying special attention to that often overlooked, but tremendously important, classroom – the school cafeteria! With the creativity of our kids, the support of local philanthropy, the dedication of community partners, and a coordinated farm-to-school campaign, we are steadily making needed changes to our food system that will increase access to healthy, fresh, and local food for all.
 Janet Poppendieck, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press, 2010), pg. 2.
Contacts: Mardi Solomon and Holly O’Neil
Phone: (360) 325-6002, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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