You can change what students eat! Celebrate the first National Farm to School Month!

(In the interests of being a good lesson planner, I am going to outline the format of this story so you know what to expect. First I am going to share my personal experiences teaching in a school, then I am going to talk about our first National Farm to School Month, then I am going to talk about what Real Time Farms is doing to help. Here goes!)

My first job was teaching in a Washington DC charter school. By my second year, after the patina of terror and bewilderment wore off, I was able to look up from my classroom (which hadn't had a fight in months, thank you very much) and begin to pay attention to other things - most notably, the school "food."

We ate in the biggest space in the school, the auditorium, on long tables with benches that could be folded in half and shoved onto one side for large meetings (when the 320 students would sit on the floor). We did not have a kitchen. The food arrived in big tubs, warmed in metal closets on wheels, served onto paper plates that would be thrown away at the end of breakfast and lunch. I had voted to join the 80% of our students on the subsidized federal meal plan by paying very little (perhaps $60/month?) to eat the same food.

Lunch varied: macaroni and cheese, meat and rice, meat and vegetables, etc. After the first two weeks of serving myself two chunks of nameless meat covered in brown sauce from one tub and perfect orange and white vegetable cubes from another I asked to be given the vegetarian option. Tofu replaced the nameless meat, same sauce. It was edible, mostly monochromatic; none of it was inspiring.

My scalding food memory is wandering among the tables and seeing two bags in front of a 6th grader. One was a bountiful bag of white cheerful marshmallows and one was a bag of glowing orange Cheetos. "What is this?"

"My lunch. Food today is gross."

"Fair enough, but you can't eat this. You are having my sandwich." I marched up to the teacher table, grabbed my sandwich - a testament to my second year energy: whole grain bread, almond butter, and boysenberry jam. I walked over and handed it to the child. "You can't eat those for lunch, we have a test this afternoon, how are you supposed on concentrate on sugar? I will give these back to you at the end of the day so you can take them home." I took the offending bags and marched back to the teachers' table.

A colleague leaned over, "Corinna, you are a moron. He is not going to eat your sandwich. He has never seen anything like it before. You are doing this for nothing. You can't change what he will eat. Now both of you are going to be hungry."

"I have nuts and an apple at my desk," I retorted, suddenly feeling unsure and silly. Sure enough when I peered over at the tables, my sandwich sat untouched, serene in its neglected glory, taunting my idealism.

Our school was in the second story of a rented building in downtown Washington. There was no outside recess. We would take field trips to our closest playground, a 6-block walk under a highway. We had summer school, school on Saturdays, and I received a cell phone where students and parents could call me at all times.

What we did share with many other schools across the country was the "heat n serve" method of feeding our children. Cheaper to purchase warmed food and pay someone to serve from tubs and throw away paper plates and cups than to have a full kitchen. All of the headache of food preparation outsourced: no hassle over finding a vendor, purchasing delays, training chefs, dishwashers breaking, health code checks for ventilation, etc.  And besides, "you can't change what he will eat."

I am thrilled to report, as you probably well know, that in the last 10 years there has been a cosmic shift. In some areas of the country I feel one is tripping over squash vines or the latest greenhouse effort to get to the front door in time for class to begin. Whether driven by concerns about obesity rates, soda in school, or feeding gray cells - concerted efforts are being made to bring a kitchen with fresh food back into the schoolhouse.

Though often food service providers have contractual limits to how much food can be supplied by outside sources. People are working to max out and push against that 10-15% limit, bringing more farm fresh food to feed our future leaders.

This October is our first National Farm to School month - government organizations, nonprofits, chefs, and farmers are all working to highlight this important issue. Take some time to browse around the Farm to School site, it has a list of regional as well as local initiatives you can become involved in.

Do you want to donate your time? Do you feel like dressing up as a carrot and talking about the importance of soil? Do you have sunflowers you could bring in to a classroom and have the kids shuck the seeds?

Real Time Farms is working with several schools to highlight and share the stories of the farm fresh ingredients being served. The software we have been using with restaurants nationwide can easily be used with schools as well. One of our many dreams is to help consumers: parents, teachers, and students follow their food from plate to farm, tracing meals in dormatories and K-12 schools nationwide. Working with Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP), our own regional program (findable in the Farm to School database), we are using our software to highlight what the Ann Arbor Public Schools are serving in their lunch rooms. Over the past few years, FSEP and other Farm to School partners have worked hard to get the local produce of Ruhlig Farms and Horkey Brothers Farm into public school system. The program's reach has been expanding, from one local food item per week to a fresh local fruit or vegetable 3 days a week in the months of September and October. See what they are doing on Real Time Farms!

My scalding food memory will always be part of me, but I am happy to report that many people are working together to change "what he will eat." Working together, we can change what our children are eating.

Here is the post on RealTimeFarms.com

Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP) unveiled

Over the last year, when speaking with different people in disparate circumstances, I began to notice a new vocabulary word. The word "efsepp" came up again and again. As in, "farm to school is an efsepp project," or "they worked with efsepp to start this," or "Jen Fike of efsepp is working on that issue."Borden - Food System Economic Partnership logo At the Homegrown Summit I had the opportunity to clarify my listening of this wonderful organization that works on so many facets of our food world in and around Ann Arbor: the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP). Recently I was able to sit down with Jennifer Fike, executive director, and educate myself beyond what can be gleaned from their website or conquering their initials.

FSEP came into being in 2005 when a myriad collection of organizations were brought together to comprehensively “localize the food system and preserve our agricultural lands,” Fike explains. The resources and institutional knowledge of each of these organizational “members” create a synergy of shared commitment and co-opportunity. Here is a list of the member organizations, for you to see for yourself the great wealth of experience and connections sitting at FSEP’s table.

- Agrarian Adventure - AVI Foodsystems - C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU - Eat Local Food, LLC - >edible WOW - Gould Farms - Growing Hope - Jackson County - Legacy Land Conservancy - Lenawee County - Locavorious - Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers - Michigan Farmers Union - Monroe County - MSU Extension - MSU Product Center for Agricultural and Natural Resources - Slow Food Huron Valley - State of Michigan - DELEG (Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth) - SYN Associates, LLC - The Conservation Fund - University of Michigan - Washtenaw County - Wayne County - Zingerman's Community of Businesses

The five-member counties are the focus of FSEP’s current docket of programs. Fike tells me that FSEP might spread beyond our corner of SE Michigan, but only after all of the programs offered are in each of the five counties first.

FSEP has four main program areas: Business Innovation & Networking, Farm to Institution Program, Market Research & Development, and Education & Outreach. I will explore each one in turn.

Business Innovation & Networking

Jane Bush, FSEP’s Business Development Specialist and owner of Appleschram Organic Orchard, “has a great knowledge of farming and she is a certified business counselor,” extols Fike. As the founder of Grazing Fields Eggs Cooperative, Bush has experience bringing farmers together to maximize returns on their efforts. According to Fike, Bush is currently helping farmers in Jackson County create a hoop-house cooperative to extend the growing season. I can imagine Bush’s experience in branding, financial logistics, and marketing is invaluable for those individuals venturing into new territory.

Farm to Institution Program

The Farm to School and Farm to Business Programs are the most visible part of FSEP’s work. The programs facilitate sourcing local food for institutions.

Farm to School began in 2006, courtesy of a grant from the Community Foundation of SE Michigan, to bring in more local food to school cafeterias. They started with three different types of school paradigms: Ann Arbor Public Schools, Chelsea Public Schools, and the Henry Ford Academy.

Fike explains, “we chose those three different types so we could learn about the challenges of each and find out what the barriers are and what some of the advantages are to the different sizes.”

FSEP is the facilitator between the food service directors and the farmers. “We work to bring the parties together. We have been so removed from where our food is coming from often people don’t know where the farms are, or what is in season, or how to prepare it. Many of the schools have moved to heat and serve - so people aren’t used to preparing fresh food. The farmers aren’t sure how to sell to an institution, so we have done workshops"

Fike continues to educate me on the complex route vegetables take to a school salad bar. “One of the things we learned was that when there are multiple layers within a school district - like Ann Arbor Public Schools - they have Chartwells that runs it - Chartwells buys the food through Compass Group, which is a multinational corporation - and Compass Group buys from food distribution companies - so there are these different layers that make it more challenging - than say Chelsea Public Schools where the food service director can say, “I just want to buy directly from the farmer.””

Fike shares a story that brings her much happiness. “Our first foray working with Farm to Institution was working with the U of M in the fall of 2006. There was a chef in South Quad - they contacted the Lesser Farm to see whether they would be willing to sell local apples to the University. He swapped out the apples in the fall from apples from the Lesser farm and apple consumption doubled. Wow - students love it!” She starts to laugh.

FSEP sees itself as the catalyst and educator for institutions. After the first year of a program, the contacts have been made and FSEP is ready to serve as the facilitator for a whole new cadre of schools, while maintaining an advisory presence for those school alumni of the program. The Farm to School Program has expanded to 5 school districts in Jackson County and this past year they launched, again with grant monies, the program with Detroit Public Schools.

Thinking of the recent Nutrition in Schools article in the Economist, I ask Fike about the response from students for fresh vegetables. Fike’s response illustrates her understanding of the consumer side of the equation. “If we just have local food on the salad bars from Chartwells in the Ann Arbor Public Schools and the students aren’t eating it - it is not going to work. And so that is where we work with partners in helping to making the connection with the students about why it is good, why it is tasty, why it is important."

Volunteers have visited the school to help educate the students as to the produce and what to do with it. Deb Lentz of Tantre Farms and Alex Young from Zingermans Roadhouse have both donated their time. As Fike says, “it needs to be a comprehensive program so that the students are consuming the food.”

In addition to schools, FSEP is working with restaurants. I learned Matt and Rene Greff of Ann Arbor Brewing worked with FSEP to funnel most of the $400,000 a year they spend on food to local suppliers. “Rene spoke at a Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting in support of FSEP talking about how their food purchasing has shifted because of FSEP, that warms my heart,” shares Fike, as she laughs a happy laugh. Mine too.

In addition to schools and restaurants, FSEP is working with the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit. Allegiance Health in Jackson County has just launched a new farmers market on site at the hospital with help from FSEP.

Market Research & Development

FSEP keeps its eyes out for best practices across the country that it would like to implement in SE Michigan. For example, Thursday is the fifth annual FSEP Conference and the keynote speaker is Michael Sands, executive director of the Liberty Prairie Foundation in Illinois. According to Fike it is a “farm incubator program” and is a program “we are very interested in launching ourselves.”

Education & Outreach

FSEP has been making appearances at local festivals to spread the word of what they are doing. This year, they were the local host for the National Farm to Cafeteria conference held in Detroit. Nearly 700 people attended the conference. Fike was appointed this February to the Agriculture Commission for the state and is keeping an eye on policy both in Lansing and D.C.

I asked her at the end of our talk what brought her to this world. Fike glows as she shares her background, “I took a trip out to Vermont in the fall of 2004 and I just couldn’t believe what was happening there - in terms of how they use land and promote local farms, the Vermont Fresh Network, and I thought, wow that is so cool - I want to do that here. And here I am. Wow.” She laughs.

Here is the article on annarbor.com!