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Advisory Board Perspectives: Miguel Villarreal

NFSN Staff Monday, August 03, 2020
This post is part of National Farm to School Network's new series of interviews with members of our Advisory Board about the impacts, challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 has brought about for the farm to school movement. 

Name: Miguel Villarreal
Title: Director of Child Nutrition
Organization: San Ramon Valley Unified School District
Location: Danville, CA
Miguel served on the National Farm to School Network Advisory Board from 2017-2019, and as the Advisory Board Chair in 2019.

Jessica Gudmundson, NFSN Senior Director of Finance and Operations, sat down with Miguel for a conversation about how the COVID-19 emergency has impacted his work as a Food Service Director, the challenges and innovations he’s seen, and what all of this means for the future of farm to school and our food system.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“When I moved out to California [nearly 20 years ago] and started working, I still hadn’t heard of farm to school but what I realized was that the community I was working in had over 60 nearby organic farms and there wasn't any local food being brought into schools. And I thought, something’s very wrong. I didn’t know what it was but I knew that something wasn’t right and I needed to figure it out. That is what ultimately led me to farm to school.”

Jessica: Welcome Miguel. To start, briefly tell me about your professional role and your relationship to NFSN.

Miguel: I’m Miguel Villarreal, Child Nutrition and Warehouse Director, with the San Ramon Valley Unified School District where I've been spending the last year. Prior to that, I was in Novato Unified School District where I spent 17 years. I also spent 20 years in Texas as a School Food Service Director before moving out to California. And honestly, the concept of farm to school was never a thought when I was in Texas. When I moved out to California and started working, I still hadn’t heard of farm to school but what I realized was that the community I was working in had over 60 nearby organic farms and there wasn't any local food being brought into schools.

And I thought, something’s very wrong. I didn’t know what it was but I knew that something wasn’t right and I needed to figure it out. That is what ultimately led me to farm to school. Many different allied groups I met along the way influenced a lot the decisions I've made over the years in how I looked and thought about school foodservice. And it led me to the National Farm to School Network where I spent 6 years as an Advisory Board member.

It’s one of the best organizations I’ve been involved with because of the people that are involved. The way I thought and looked at things have changed over the years. I’ve said before to you Jessica, 90% of my decisions are now made with my heart and 10% with my head. When I met folks from the National Farm to School Network - not only people who work for the organization but all people involved - I realized they also made decisions the same way. We do what we do because we care.

Jessica: I couldn’t agree more. People make up this movement and people are the heart of this work. We do this work because we value everybody’s lives along the food chain. We’re going to talk about COVID-19 and farm to school. How has this emergency impacted your work as a Food Service Director?

“The one thing that Food Service Directors are and food service programs are, is accustomed to change. We adapt well to many different circumstances.” 
Miguel: My work and every other Food Service Director across the country. It’s turned our lives upside down. The one thing that Food Service Directors are and food service programs are, is accustomed to change. We adapt well to many different circumstances. In fact, I've said many times, it’s a curse in a way. We make it happen, regardless of what’s going on. We put food on the table for kids every school day and nobody has any idea how it got done. All they know is that children got fed.

COVID-19 was not any different for many Food Service Directors. We adapted literally overnight. We changed our programs. We went from full salad bars to no touch points, overnight.

Jessica: Have you implemented anything new that you’d like to see continue moving forward?

Miguel: First, I’m hoping the recognition of the importance of the work that’s being done in schools will continue moving forward. The Child Nutrition folks have stepped up to the challenge to feed America’s children during a pandemic.

We’re also seeing more education and meal connection in our programs. I was hearted to see child nutrition professionals on the cover of TIME magazine. When was the last time that happened? Never! They are really essential employees. Why is that so important? For years it was just the minimum - hours worked, salaries earned. I hope that changes. That school administrators, states and federal governments recognize the importance of the School Child Nutrition employees’ work.

Secondly, using local food and focusing not only on locally grown, but also more importantly making sure that food is being produced as organic or regenerative farming, or both. We’re not only taking care of the health of our children; we are taking care of the health of our environment and the planet in general. I’d like to see that continue moving forward.

“Moving forward, I’m hoping we have that universal meal program mentality where we are providing to anyone that needs it. Not just providing food but the best food we can - organic, food good for our children’s health, the environment’s health, and the health of animals.” 
Third, serving everybody universal free meals. This is happening right now. We’re seeing some families come by and pick up meals that may not be on the National School Lunch Program. And we’re also seeing families not participating. Is it because they don’t like our food? No, it’s because they feel like they don’t need our services right now. They haven’t lost a job. They’re not in that situation. We’re providing a service for families that need it. Moving forward, I’m hoping we have that universal meal program mentality where we are providing to anyone that needs it. Not just providing food but the best food we can - organic, food good for our children’s health, the environment’s health, and the health of animals. All that together contributes to a healthier community and society. Not just for our own personal health, but also our economic health as a society.

Jessica: We have also seen some of the exciting things you mentioned in response to COVID-19, and we want to see them continue as we move forward too. The future feels uncertain at this point in time and I know there’s a lot of speculation about what school will look like in the fall. Are kids going back to school? What will school meals look like? How do you plan for those unknowns?

Miguel: We have no idea what the future is going to bring. What we do know is this: School food service programs are super resilient. School food service employees are super resilient. The people in charge are super resilient and able to adapt and figure things out. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve proven that over and over again.

We really need to develop a roadmap of standards. We have this opportunity now. Who needs to be at the farm to school table? I think we have the people and the resources to make those decisions. We need to invest in them.

We’ve seen it in communities around the country where you invest in school food service programs by bringing in the right leadership and providing them with the right resources, whether it be finances or infrastructure. It really has a huge impact in the community. They are seeing the benefit of that. I think we have this opportunity with COVID in that we can bring these community benefits to everybody’s attention.

Jessica: Universal meals is a great platform or starting place to think about all those different components: Investing in leadership, investing in food and justice across the board, taking a look at how school meals happen and why, and how we can improve them. I know many people are concerned about the privatization of school meal programs, meaning schools will hire external companies to implement programs because of financial losses during COVID, and this will impact the quality of food provided to children. Is this something you are worried about?

Miguel: In terms of school districts considering privatizing, you have to step back and see what’s best for your program. Ultimately I think that if you manage foodservice programs correctly and you have the right leadership in your school district, you don’t privatize. The decision to manage the school foodservice program moving forward should not just rely on one economic factor. Such as, are you in the black? Does that need to be considered? Absolutely. But it's not the only economic factor that needs to be considered.

What else is contributing to the economic livelihood of that program? How much are we spending on local farmers? How much are we contributing to the local economy?

What we don’t look at is long-term health. The fact that kids are consuming more fruits and vegetables, in many instances organic, what effect does that have on long-term health consequences? Not only for the children but for the healthcare system. And also, educating the kids along the way - what kind of decisions are they making down the road because of habits they’ve established in schools and at home? So we aren’t only focusing on what's going on in schools, but we are also reaching out to homes and telling families what we are doing and getting them engaged as well. All those things need to be addressed and privatization doesn’t take all of that into consideration.

All that to tell you how important it is that we continue to focus on hiring the right people. I used to say this for years, and I still do: If you are trying to accomplish everything I just mentioned in your program and you’re not seeing results with the people you have, maybe it's time to change. Not privatize, but change the leadership. Or, more importantly, invest in people, make sure they are trained properly and have the right resources. This is what you can get for your community as well.

“The thing is, we have school food service programs and they exist in every community. They truly can be the hub for creating nutrition and wellness environments.” 
Jessica: One of the things that COVID-19 has done is shine a spotlight on schools as centers of community and places that serve communities. It truly demonstrates that the value of school meal programs is what it puts out into the community.

Miguel: Absolutely. The thing is, we have school food service programs and they exist in every community. They truly can be the hub for creating nutrition and wellness environments. I see this around the country in some localized school districts where they are reaching out and creating collaborative partnerships. They’ve invited people to the farm to school table. It’s happening across the country. The attention to our programs has really surfaced.

Jessica: Building on some of the changes we’ve discussed, what challenges are you seeing because of COVID-19? What inequities are you seeing?

Miguel: Yeah, there’s challenges from all directions. That will continue to be part of our program because of people's mindsets. And I’ll use myself as an example. Before I moved to California and was working in Texas, I really wasn’t thinking about the food system in general. My job was to feed children, provide nourishment to children, and work with distributors and manufacturers. That was it. What does a manufacturer produce and who can I get it from, and how is that going to impact the bottom line? That was my focus for the better part of 20 years until I moved out here to California and realized that the food system we work in is much broader and involves so much more than I had ever thought about. By taking that all into context I realized it's far more challenging than we think. There’s so many moving parts you have to consider. Not only the manufacturers but where did the food come from to begin with? Where was it sourced? How is it being grown? Is it organic? What impact does it have on children, environment, animals and so forth?

“I guess the way I would gauge success is when people stop talking about the food system and it’s just inherent. We eat healthy. That’s when we have success when it just becomes who we are. We don’t have to think about it.” 
Jessica: Why is farm to school and our food system so important right now? What are some critical relationships and partnerships that you’ve relied on to do this work?

Miguel: When I came to California, I started creating lots of different collaborative partnerships within our community because I knew that was missing. Starting directly with the schools. Who have I not been talking to?

For example, I had only met about 5 school teachers the entire time I worked in Texas. I had relationships with administrators of course, but I had not considered the teachers in the classroom as partners. And when I came to California, I stood back and asked who are our partners right here, in this school community? Well, it’s made up of teachers, administrators, students. It was so important to make partnerships with those teachers early on. I’m proud to say I made the effort to introduce myself and meet all the teachers in the district. And it took time to make that happen. I wanted them to know that I supported their efforts in the classroom. And in turn, teachers could support Child Nutrition efforts, but we had to work together for the benefit of the students.

I started meeting with lots of student groups as well. It happened over a period of 10 years - it didn’t happen overnight. I met teachers, students, and then the families, through PTA groups. Then I worked on building collaborations outside of the school community. Where are we buying our food from? It included our farmers and ally groups that wanted to join. The collaborative groups grew and developed over the years. Because of that, we had lots of successes. We all want to be a part of a winning team.

Start within and expand outwardly. People want to be a part of the team once they see positive impacts.

I’ll share this last thing: A farmer asked me one time ‘how do you know that you’ve been successful? How do you gauge success? That everything you've put in place is working?’ He caught me off guard but I remember thinking, I guess the way I would gauge success is when people stop talking about the food system and it’s just inherent. We eat healthy. We have success when it just becomes who we are. We don’t have to think about it.

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