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Measures to Support Children, Families & Producers of Color in Drafts of New COVID-19 Relief Bill

NFSN Staff Tuesday, February 23, 2021

By Karen Spangler, NFSN Policy Director

This week, the House and Senate are at work on a new round of relief legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a complex procedural move known as reconciliation, the House and Senate may be able to advance relief and stimulus funds with a narrow majority vote. House Committees have released their portions of the proposal, including the House Committee on Education and Labor, and the House Committee on Agriculture. Included are numerous measures that will support those most in need in our farm to school and early care and education community, including an increase in pandemic EBT (P-EBT) for young children, funds for child care stabilization, and an increase of 15% in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits. In addition, the bill would provide money to purchase directly from producers (such as the Farmers to Families food box program), and to strengthen food supply chain infrastructure and worker protection.

Also included in the proposal from the House Agriculture Committee is a historic measure to provide $4 billion in debt relief and financial support for producers of color with USDA farm loans. An additional $1 billion would address historic and ongoing discrimination in the food system, including oversight for racial equity at USDA, support for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and historically Black land-grant universities, and legal resources for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) producers. This legislative language first debuted in the Senate in the Emergency Relief for Producers of Color Act, introduced by new Senate Ag Committee members Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), as well as committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and longtime farm to school champion Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

The leadership of House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott (D-GA-13) and Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA-2) in including this measure comes at an especially crucial time. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated long-existing inequities in farm policy, and Black and Indigenous communities have suffered disproportionately from the health, economic, and food security effects of the pandemic. A newly-released analysis from Environmental Working Group found that nearly 97 percent of $9.2 billion in pandemic relief direct payments went to white producers as of October 2020, with white farmers on average receiving four times more than the average Black farmer. Clearly, the status quo is not enough to provide real, equitable relief to BIPOC producers struggling during this pandemic. Debt forgiveness is a direct and immediate measure that government can take to address the structural injustices that are still happening.

As the full legislative package makes its way to the House floor this week, and as the Senate takes up relief measures, National Farm to School Network urges policymakers to prioritize the urgent need for bold measures such as this one during and after the current crisis.

Celebrating Black Visionaries in Farm to School & Community Food Systems

Anna Mullen Friday, February 19, 2021

Meet these Black visionaries below! Top: Betti, Brandy, Glyen, Haile. Middle: Jamese, Karen, Krystal, LaDonna. Bottom: Qiana, Rodney, Te’Lario.


February is Black History Month, a dedicated time to celebrate the power and resilience of the Black community and the many Black leaders on whose shoulders we stand. Historic and systemic racism in our country, as well as white privilege and power within the food systems, have unjustly obscured the significant contributions that Black individuals and communities have made and continue to make in our food system – including in farm to school. At National Farm to School Network, we acknowledge and apologize for our role in perpetuating these injustices and the harm that we have caused. We are also committed to taking actions to dismantle structural racism and shift power to those who have been marginalized, exploited, and excluded from the food system. You can read more about our commitment to creating a racially just food system here.

In this spirit, and in celebration of this time of Black History Month, we’re recognizing and honoring some of the Black visionaries, trailblazers, community leaders, and activists who inspire us and whose voices are leading essential conversations around racial equity and justice in farm to school, our food system, and beyond.

Betti Wiggins
“Quality food, the kind which supplies sufficient calories and nutrition to allow focus, learning, productivity, and growth, is the right of every child – really every human being.”

Betti Wiggins is one of the foremost authorities on school nutrition and food service management. She is the Director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Houston Independent School District, which serves more than 280,000 students at 287 school sites every day. Prior to Houston ISD, she was the Executive Director of Child Nutrition Programs at Detroit Public Schools. Under her leadership, the Detroit School Garden Collaborative was established in 2011. Since its inception, the program has grown to support more than 80 school-based gardens and a 4.5-acre school farm. She is affectionately known as the “Rebel Lunch Lady,” determined to use her passion for food justice and agricultural upbringing to ensure every kid has the fuel they need to learn in school. Betti is a former National Farm to School Network Advisory Board member. Hear more from Betti:
> Betti Wiggins on her career journey from segregated hospitals to leading foodservice at one of the nation’s largest school districts (Food Management)
> Betti Wiggins: Changing the way American children eat at school (NBC News)

Brandy Brooks
“We are in the middle of this massive cultural trauma of COVID and racial justice and an unprecedented ecological crisis… as political healers, we aren’t going to bury these things, we are going to bring them forward so we can heal from these things.”

Brandy Brooks is Co-Director of the Political Healers Project, a national network led by womxn of color and committed to centering healing, collective, and creative leadership in movement organizing. Brandy is also the founder and chief executive of Radical Solutions LLC, providing coaching, consulting, facilitation, and training around racial equity and environmental justice to organizations across the country – including us at National Farm to School Network. Brandy's work over the past 15 years has focused on community organizing, power-building, food justice, and food sovereignty, among others. In January, Brandy joined our monthly Coffee Chat series to talk about how we can address racial healing in National Farm to School Network's efforts towards a racially just food system and, more generally, how racial healing should be part of all food systems work – watch below! Hear more from Brandy:
> How Do We Address Racial Healing? (NFSN Coffee Chat)
> We Are Designed to Heal with Brandy Books - Feb. 23 (NESAWG Sankofa Series Webinar)

Glyen Holmes
"It's a tough time for farmers, and even tougher for African American farmers. Farm to school can be a tool for African Americans to get back into farming, and to be able to sustain their farming."

Glyen Holmes is a founding father of modern farm to school efforts. In the mid-1990s, he founded the New North Florida Cooperative (NNFC), a network of African American vegetable farmers near Jackson County, Florida, with a goal of giving small farmers a viable market opportunity by selling their products to local schools. NNFC’s "small farm to school" program found success by selling wash, chopped, and bagged fresh produce to area schools, and has continued its work for more than 20 years, expanding to Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas. During the pandemic, NNFC's processing capability put it in an advantageous position to supply schools with pre-packed fresh fruits and vegetables for grab-and-go school meals. Hear more from Glyen:
> Glyen Holmes Helped Revolutionize Farm to School Programs (Farm Aid)
> Farm to School - Glyen Holmes NNFC

Haile Thomas
“Through farm to cafeteria work, we gain experiences that help prepare us for the world.”

Haile Thomas is a 20-year-old wellness and compassion activist, international speaker, content creator, the youngest to graduate from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition as a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach (at age 16), and the founder/CEO of the non-profit HAPPY (Healthy, Active, Positive, Purposeful, Youth). Haile founded HAPPY when she was 12 years old to redefine youth empowerment through holistic education and address the need for free/affordable plant-based nutrition and wellness education in underserved/at-risk communities. Haile was a keynote speaker at our 9th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2018. Hear more from Haile:
> Why Haile Thomas Wants America’s Kids to Think Different (Heritage Harvest Festival)
> Cooking Up History: Living Lively: Youth Empowerment through Food with Chef Haile Thomas (National Museum of American History)

Jamese Kwele
“Centering equity and advancing racial justice is long-haul work that requires self-reflection, education, difficult conversations, and sustained action. It’s about making change; it’s about learning; it’s about growing as a movement; it’s about shifting, and yes, it’s about dismantling systems of oppression that exist both within us and outside of us.”

Jamese Kwele is the Director of Equity / Food Equity at Ecotrust, where she leads the organization's institutional equity work and a Food Equity initiative developed at the intersections of food and land justice, climate resilience, and economic development. Jamese is also one of the co-founders of the Black Food Fund, sits on the leadership team of the Black Oregon Land Trust, and serves as a board member for both the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition and the National Farm to School Network. Hear more from Jamese:
> Keynote Address: Equity in Farm to School (Vermont FEED)
> Introducing Jamese Kwele (Ecotrust)

Karen Washington
"Food justice represents a transformation of the current food system to change current inequities. It's not a passive movement, it's an active movement. In order for all of us to work on food justice, we must actively be working on socially dismantling the injustices we see."

Karen Washington has been a community activist striving to make New York City a better place to live since 1985. As a community gardener and board member of the New York Botanical Gardens, she worked with Bronx neighborhoods to turn empty lots into community gardens. As an advocate, and former president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, she stood up and spoke out for garden protection and preservation. As a member of the La Familia Verde Garden Coalition, she helped launched a City Farms Market, bringing fresh vegetables to the community. Karen is Co-owner/Farmer at Rise & Root Farm in Chester New York. Karen was our 2020 Movement Meeting keynote speaker - watch below! Hear more from Karen:
> Keynote: Food Justice is Racial Justice (NFSN 2020 Movement Meeting)
> It’s Not a Food Desert, It’s Food Apartheid (Guernica)

Krystal Oriadha
"There's a true opportunity to leverage school meals in a way that prioritizes local producers and BIPOC farmers who have been left out of the conversation.”

Krystal Oriadha is the Senior Director of Programs and Policy at National Farm to School Network, where she guides the overall strategic programs and policy advocacy activities of our organization. Krystal is a recognized community leader and activist for justice in Prince George’s County, Maryland and the wider community. For more than 10 years, she’s advocated for criminal justice reform, education, women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and food justice. Krystal is also the co-founder of PG Change Makers and the LGBTQ Dignity Project. Hear more from Krystal:
> A Shared Vision for School Food Policy (FoodCorps Town Hall)
> White-Led Organizations: Actions Speak Louder Than Words (Written by Krystal Oriadha and Helen Dombalis, NFSN Executive Director)

LaDonna Sanders Redmond
“All oppression is linked. Food is just a tool for organizing. It’s not really about the food. It’s about what the food brings: choice and dignity.”

LaDonna Sanders Redmond is a community activist who began her advocacy for a fairer food system when she wanted healthy, organic food to help combat allergies her young son had developed. But that food wasn’t available in West Chicago. So, she became an advocate for food justice and helped create community access to fresh, healthy, pesticide-free, and GMO-free food. She achieved her vision by converting vacant city lots into urban farms, creating retail food enterprises to sell fresh fruit and vegetables in the community, and replacing junk food with salad bars in Chicago Public Schools. Hear more from LaDonna:
> Food + Justice = Democracy: LaDonna Redmond (TEDx Talk)
> Keynote: Ending Systematic Oppression in the Food System (8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference)

Qiana Mickie
"If this is not the time to dismantle something as big and persistent as food apartheid, when is the time?"

Qiana Mickie has spent more than 10 years fostering a food-based solidarity economy that increases farm viability, healthy food access, and leadership opportunities for small- and mid-scale regional farmers, youth, Black, Brown, mixed-income, and other communities of color. Qiana also brings an equity-driven lens to policy work on issues such as food sovereignty, land stewardship, and health. Qiana is the former Executive Director of Just Food and continues working with the organization as a special projects consultant. Qiana joined our Coffee Chat series last fall to discuss what food apartheid is and how we end it in our communities – it was a rich conversation that our staff continue to revisit and reflect on. Hear more from Qiana:
> How Do We End Food Apartheid In Our Communities (NFSN Coffee Chat)
> Qiana Mickie on Food Justice & Access (Heritage Radio)

Rodney Taylor
“I see it as my mission to ensure that no child feels the indignity of being hungry. Not on my watch.”

Rodney Taylor is an expert and early pioneer in farm to school salad bars. In 1997, he established the first “Farmers’ Market Salad Bar” program while working as Director of Food and Nutrition Services in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. He has also held Director roles in school nutrition departments at Fairfax County Public Schools and Riverside Unified School District. Rodney has served on the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, the University of California (UC) President’s Advisory Commission for Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Network for a Healthy California’s Executive Committee, and National Farm to School Network's Advisory Board. Hear more from Rodney:
> He grew up hungry. Now he wants to revolutionize school lunch. (Washington Post)
> Spotlight on Rodney Taylor, Farm to School Pioneer (Healthy Schools Campaign)

Te’Lario Watkins Jr.
“All kids should have enough food to eat to learn and grow.”

Te'Lario Watkins Jr. is a 13-year-old mushroom farmer, entrepreneur, and food justice advocate in central Ohio. He also founded The Garden Club Project, which has a mission to help end hunger and encourage kids to eat healthier. During the pandemic, Te’Lario has donated seed kits to local daycare centers, helped deliver over 2,000 lbs of fresh produce to a local food pantry, and started work on a community garden to help feed families that may otherwise have difficulty regularly accessing fresh produce. Hear more from Te’Lario:
> Te'Lario Watkins II: Farmer, Activist, Businessman, Youth Leader (Slow Food USA)
> Follow Te’Lario on Instagram

These are just a few of the many Black trailblazers, innovators, and movement makers who are helping power farm to school and community food systems efforts nationwide. There are many more - including on our staff, Advisory Board, in our network of Core and Supporting Partners, and others - who we also celebrate this month.

Our commitment to listening to and lifting up Black voices and leadership in farm to school doesn't stop at the end of February. Every day is the right day for being honest about and addressing the racism and inequities in our work. (You can read more about National Farm to School Network's commitment to centering our work in equity here.) In April, our staff will be participating in Food Solutions New England's 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge - sign up to join us. And, we encourage you join us in continuing to honor the Black leaders who have given, and continue to give, boundless wisdom, vision, creativity and commitment to the farm to school movement.

Racial Healing & Our Call for a Racially Just Food System

NFSN Staff Tuesday, January 19, 2021
 

January 19 is the 5th Annual National Day of Racial Healing, a time for contemplation and collective action on how we heal from the effects of racism. Racial healing is a process that restores individuals and communities to wholeness, repairs the damage caused by racism, and transforms societal structures into ones that affirm the inherent value of all people.

Helen Dombalis, Executive Director of National Farm to School Network, shares her reflections on how racial healing is part of our work towards our new call to action: By 2025, 100% of communities will hold power in a racially just food system.

Video Transcript:

"This is Helen Dombalis, I serve as Executive Director of the National Farm to School Network. At the end of 2020, we released a call to action for our food system that by 2025, 100% of communities will hold power in a racially justice food system. In other words, were making a commitment to shifting power in order to achieve a racially justice food system. In the process leading up to that call to action's finalization we kept coming back to the fact that if you don't work differently the gap between our vision and our current reality will continue to widen. We can't keep working on local procurement, gardens, and food and food and agriculture education in the same ways and expect different results. We have to be intentional about shifting power in order to achieve a racially just food system.

We know that our call to action takes all of us at the National Farm to School Network and through farm to school activities, but also across our food system. So, today being January 19th, the Annual National Day of Racial Healing is an important day and in our ongoing work to recognize that we can't make progress without also healing.

In our nation and communities, and in our food system there is a deep history in intentionality of racism including the foundation on which our American agricultural system was built from enslavement of African peoples to settler colonialism and stolen land from Indigenous peoples. We're not just working against that history, we're also saying that there's a history and it continues today in the real and destructive ways that are current unjust food system impacts communities of color.

For example, during the pandemic with food workers having higher rates of Covid and not being given due protections during the pandemic. So as we do this work, we have to acknowledge what got us here and how racism is continuing today to harm all of us.

We're all people with families, with communities, with hopes with challenges, and regardless of our skin color, racism is fueling divisiveness, not unity, difference, not inclusion, and bias, not trust.

So, as National Farm to School Network Executive Director, and on a personal level, as a mother, I'm committed to a world and a food system where all people are valued and respected equally regardless of skin color, income, immigration status, job, or any other criteria. But I also know that it's not enough to just hold that commitment, to have that value system. Action is necessary.

With the National Day of Racial Healing, it's a moment to making a commitment to learning more and taking action, including in the food system and looking at our own contributions to racism and ending it. So, I'm committed to learning more about the history of school meal and child nutrition programs being rooted in survival and power building in Black communities and also looking at and acknowledging that farm to school very much predates the founding of the Network Farm to School Network, when you look at Indigenous communities, for example, and the connection and honoring of land and food and integrating that into learning.

I'm also committed to shifting power, recognizing that there's a spectrum and ultimately we have to defer and ensure that those who are impacted by decisions are actually the one who is making the decision. So, for example, producers of color showing up and working with school districts and their purchasing and the producer saying,"Here's what we have available here. Here's what we will have available," and integrating that in the school meal programs and meeting a price point that's a living wage for those producers. It's not enough to have the school districts be the ones to say, "Okay, we'll buy this from these producers of color." At the furthest end of the spectrum, it's the farmers of color that are making those decisions themselves.

So with that example, I will leave you all with my firm commitment to learning, and also to action, and ask you all to join me in contributing to understanding that we need to heal from our past and in our current reality, in order to move forward and achieve a more racially just food system. Thank you."

Looking Back and Ahead: Our Racial Equity Journey in 2020 and into 2021

NFSN Staff Tuesday, December 08, 2020



By Helen Dombalis, Executive Director


National Farm to School Network was founded in 2007 on core values including food justice, and we have more recently moved to focus on the importance of race in this work, since food justice is racial justice. We are also working to move beyond words into action, since while words like our equity commitment statement matter, words alone will not achieve a racially just food system. We also need tangible action, such as our efforts in 2019.

Twice in 2020 - in January and June - we publicly made commitments to action for racial justice through our work and have been carrying through on those steps throughout the year. This fall, we launched our call to action for the food system that will guide us in the years ahead.

In the spirit of holding ourselves accountable and in hopes of inspiring each of you to set measurable goals in your work towards achieving racial justice in our food system, we’re sharing our story from 2020. We’d love to hear your story too!

2020: Reflecting back, we:

2021: Looking ahead, we will be:
  • Updating our mission and vision and our values to explicitly center them in racial justice. 
  • Updating our equity commitment to provide more context about the history and intentional exploitation and oppression behind the statistics we cite.
  • Asking ourselves and all of you what shifting power looks like and setting measurable goals and tracking progress towards this.
  • Updating our equity assessment tool for programs and policies.
  • Developing an organizational equity assessment tool for us and our partners. 
  • Continuing to invest in racial equity professional development opportunities for staff and board members.
  • Creating a “People to People Language Guide” for communicating about race, ethnicity, gender, social class, disability status, and other forms of identity.
  • Continuing work with our external equity consultants.
  • Continuing to examine and address white supremacist culture in our organization.

Onward, together!

When Words Aren’t Enough, But You Have Words to Say: There Is No Food Justice Without Racial Justice, Part Two

NFSN Staff Monday, August 31, 2020

By Helen Dombalis, NFSN Executive Director

I’m writing this nearly a week after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police, and after Kyle Rittenhouse murdered two people and injured a third at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha. In the words of the late and great John Lewis, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.” So I’m here to say something, even when I know words are not enough, and to do something with the privilege and power I have.

Black people are being killed, Black families and communities are being torn apart, and Black members of our nation are living in constant fear. I know words alone will not make racism and hatred stop, and yet speaking up is necessary at moments like these. My colleagues (and co-conspirators) and I have written this, this, and this in the last three months alone. How many more times is this going to happen? And why did it take us this long to even get to the point of having national attention of systemic racism when Black people have been murdered by state sanctioned killings since being kidnapped and enslaved centuries ago? It took too long to get to this moment. Looking ahead, how are we going to take responsibility for changing the future?

While words are not enough, they do make a difference. After my May 31 statement, I heard from plenty of people suggesting farm to school has nothing to do with racial justice, that our food system is colorblind, and that speaking up about George Floyd’s murder is bringing politics to an apolitical topic. I’ll say again, this simply is not true. National Farm to School Network was founded on these core values and with a vision for a just food system. Farm to school has everything to do with racial justice; our food system is immensely racist, and our country’s politics have become about which humans are valued, and which are not. 

Racial justice is “the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all…[it]...goes beyond ‘anti-racism.’ It is not just the absence of discrimination and inequities, but also the presence of deliberate systems and supports to achieve and sustain racial equity through proactive and preventative measures” (from Racial Equity Tools Glossary). That’s what National Farm to School Network should be about and it’s the direction we’re going in - making our food system work for everyone, from farmers, farmer workers and producers, to children and families, school nutrition staff and educators. And until every person has the opportunity to participate equally in producing and consuming nutritious, local food, and until there are no differences in this opportunity based on race, there is work to be done in correcting the racial injustices in our food system.

When we release our new strategic plan at our Movement Meeting on October 14, we will set forth a bold goal, centered in racial justice. Because nothing less is going to accomplish our vision.

As a white Executive Director of a national nonprofit, I have many privileges. I know sitting comfortably in my home writing this, not living in fear of being killed because of what I look like, is one of them. I don’t carry the constant, exhausting burden that Black people carry always. I cannot change my skin color, but I can evolve my actions. As my colleague Krystal Oriadha told me, being an ally is about taking risk. If you aren’t taking risk, if you aren’t taking even a bit of the burden off of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, you aren’t in allyship. Another of my privileges is platforms like this. Maybe a few people will leave our movement, and that is okay. We are investing our energy in those that are aligned and want to move forward with us on this path. And I am confident we will also gain many new supporters. I heard in recent months from the critics, but I also heard from newcomers and old friends, sharing that our words inspired them. So I’ll keep using my privilege to say something, hoping it will inspire more of you to do the same.

And when it comes to the fact that I also want to do something, we’re committing to shifting power. There’s power in money. Through the second phase of NFSN’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, we made a commitment specifically to Black- and Indigeouns-led organizations, and we will continue to make these types of commitments. In this spirit, today National Farm to School Network is granting $5,000 to the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. These commitments are examples of shifting power, but we know these are not the overall solution, and we know that this is long-term work. It has taken time to build structural racism into all aspects of our society, and it’s going to take time to dismantle it. We also know we’ve been implicated in maintaining these structures. And we know we have power and privilege and are committed to channeling this into actionable steps towards a more racially just food system and society. (If you missed it before, here and here are commitments we’re making and steps we’re taking.) We’re calling on you to take this seriously and do the same. Our contributions may not be much, but little things coalesce into a big difference.

So what are you saying, what are you doing? Join me. Join us. Make a difference today. 

We Need to Rebuild Our Food System. Schools Can Lead.

NFSN Staff Tuesday, July 21, 2020

By National Farm to School Network and Urban School Food Alliance

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important role schools play in our food systems, as a source of food for students, an employer of essential food service workers and a market for food producers. The pandemic also exposed the deep, pervasive inequities in our food system, including the devastating impacts COVID-19 had on those historically underserved.

Our food system is permeated with troubling disparities. Even before the pandemic, access to healthy food has been a challenge most pronounced for people of color who live in low-income communities. And since the onset of the pandemic, a survey has found that nearly 41 percent of mothers with children ages 12 and under reported household food insecurity.

Food system workers, who represent 1 in 5 essential workers, are predominantly people of color who often earn less than a living wage, and have been dying at higher rates from COVID-19 due to prevalence of underlying health conditions. Concerns exist that farmers of color, who make up less than 4 percent of the nation’s producers, are being overlooked in the US Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Combined, these inequities in our food system span urban, suburban and rural communities, the direct result of inequitable and inefficient policies and practices as old as our nation itself.

When, in March, nearly all 100,000 schools across the country closed their doors, there were herculean efforts to ensure that school children – nearly 75 percent of whom receive free or reduced price meals – continued to have access to food. Ensuring every child is fed must be part of our work to rebuild the food system. As conversations turn towards “what’s next” in responding to the pandemic, we have a tremendous opportunity to change our food system and ensure that every person along the supply chain – from grower to eater, is treated justly. To recover from the present health and economic crisis, we must relook at the critical role food plays in health, equity and prosperity in our communities.

Many approaches will be needed to do this work, and we’ve been heartened to see multiple ideas already shared. There is one approach we think deserves more attention: school cafeterias can be a major propeller of this urgent, needed change in how we eat. Here’s how:

School cafeterias are our nation’s largest restaurant chain. When school is in session, cafeterias feed 30 million hungry mouths each day. More than 7 billion meals are served annually through the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program and more than $18.2 billion invested in these programs annually. With schools everywhere, focusing on school food supply chains means focusing on food in every community.

School meal funding recirculates in local communities. The collective purchasing power of school food service provides an opportunity to invest in local communities – both in the food purchased for meals, and in providing stable workforce opportunities. According to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census, schools spent nearly $800 million annually on local food purchases, and more than 42 percent of schools report engaging in farm to school opportunities. Every dollar invested in farm to school efforts stimulates an additional $0.60-$2.16 of local economic activity.

School meal infrastructure helps make communities adaptable during a crisis. During this pandemic, many schools have taken on the role of feeding entire communities. The existing infrastructure of school meals and the experience and ingenuity of school nutrition professionals has allowed them to meet this critical need. Furthermore, schools’ existing relationships with farmers have shown resilience during this crisis: a School Nutrition Association survey found that nearly a quarter of schools are supporting local agriculture and serving local foods in their emergency feeding programs. Simultaneously, we’re seeing support of local food systems continue to rise during this pandemic.

School meals are an investment in the future. This pandemic shows we are capable of cooperation and rapid change, and it is important this continues. Every community deserves a strong and just local food system and we must continue to leverage our collective energy for equitable change as we rebuild by seeking opportunities for collaboration and action amongst schools, growers, producers, governmental agencies and community advocates. Investing in school meals is smart and a proven strategy for whole-community health, economic stimulus and resilience. School meals must be part of the conversation as we talk about the future.

Learn more at www.farmtoschool.org and www.urbanschoolfoodalliance.org.

Remembering Philando Castile, School Food Hero

NFSN Staff Wednesday, July 08, 2020
By Noah Cohen-Cline – Lead Program Officer, Food Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation – and Helen Dombalis – Executive Director, National Farm to School Network

This blog originally appeared on The Rockefeller Foundation’s website. 


Photo courtesy of Joan Edman, via TIME.
This week—July 6, 2020—marks the four-year anniversary of the police killing of Philando Castile, only a few miles from where George Floyd was killed in Minnesota, during a traffic stop on his drive home from the grocery store with his girlfriend and her young daughter. Philando was many things to many people; in a statement by his family, he was remembered as “an amazing mentor, supporter, friend, son, brother, and Man.”

And to hundreds of children at a small elementary school in St. Paul, he was “Mr. Phil,” the kind and devoted cafeteria supervisor who handed out meals and made sure that kids had the food they needed to thrive. According to his obituary and to reporting at the time, Philando loved his job, loved the children he served, and often paid for the lunches of students who could not afford them.

Philando—like so many other Black people who have died at the hands of police violence recently and throughout our country’s history—was a victim of institutional racism. Because Philando was a school nutrition professional, we also remember him as a champion of racial justice—because school food programs, and the thousands of workers who make them run, are a bedrock of equity in our food system.

We knew before the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent Black Lives Matter protests that our food system is rife with racial inequities and that the current public health crisis has only exacerbated them. Our nation’s economy and our agricultural system are built on a foundation of racism and exploitation. Beginning with the theft of indigenous land from Native people and then the enslavement and forced labor of Africans to build our country’s wealth, the way we grow and produce food and get it from farm to table—both historically and today still—relies heavily on the underpaid and undervalued labor of Black, Latinx, and Native American communities. These inequities in our food system contribute to economic and health inequalities: the same people that provide labor in our food system often can’t afford nourishing food for themselves and their families. As a result, Black, Latinx, and Native American communities are significantly more likely to face hunger and food insecurity than White individuals, and to suffer from diet-related diseases like diabetes.

School food programs play a central role in addressing this injustice. By serving 30 million children every day—22 million of whom qualify for subsidized meals based on family income—school meal and child nutrition programs are delivering critical nourishment to the children who have been most underserved by our economic and food systems’ structural racism. School food alone cannot dismantle systemic racism, nor can any food access program. But schools can play a critical role by providing the nourishment that all children, of every race and ethnicity, need to grow, learn, and thrive.

In addition to providing equitable food access, many school food directors are finding innovative ways to use their programs to drive equity and sustainability in the broader food system. Good Food Purchasing Programs in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and many other cities are using the collective market power of their school food budgets—totaling $18 billion nationally—to advance racial and social equity on farms and in food businesses and communities. National Farm to School Network’s early advocacy efforts for values-based universal meals—and the team of organizations and schools supporting this model—show promise for a national shift in how we spend our resources, and serve our children, to become a system rooted in racial equity and justice instead of the opposite.

School food heroes show up every day, motivated by the needs of the children they serve. They work tirelessly—often for unreasonably low wages and with limited training and subpar equipment—to serve our children nourishing meals. They’re serving balanced, nutritious meals on unrealistically tight budgets, and they have met the challenges of the global pandemic with innovation and devotion. They do this because they believe every child, everywhere, deserves to eat well and thrive.

Philando Castile was one of these heroes. As we remember his life and honor his legacy, let us also recognize and support school food programs and school nutrition professionals as the essential drivers of racial justice that they are.

View the original blog, posted on The Rockefeller Foundation’s website, here.

How We’re Taking Action for Racial Justice (A Start)

NFSN Staff Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Last month, in the wake of the modern-day lynching of George Floyd, we shared a statement acknowledging that we know we cannot achieve food justice if we're not willing to do racial justice work. We also shared our commitment to being an anti-racist organization and an active participant in the fight for justice. As a predominantly White-led organization, we cannot be silent allies. We must act. 

As a follow up to that statement, we want to share some of the concrete, actionable ways that we will continue to deepen our commitment to being an anti-racist ally in this work: 

  • We will conduct an internal racial equity assessment by the end of 2020. From that assessment, in early 2021, we will develop a racial equity action plan based on where transformational change needs to take place within our organization and our work. 
  • We will build leadership capacity for our staff to take action and meaningfully engage in advancing racial equity through our work. 
  • We will invest our resources in ways that prioritize and center Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. One current example: round two of our COVID-19 Relief Fund will prioritize funding for organizations that serve and are led by Black people and Indigenous people. 
  • We will continue to move forward the other equity actions we committed to taking this year, shared by Helen Dombalis, our Executive Director, in January. See a list of those commitments here
We fully acknowledge that this is not a comprehensive list – there is much more work to be done. However, we aim for these actionable steps to move us in a direction of continuing to build the foundation of our commitment to being an anti-racist organization, and from which transformational actions and goals must follow. 

We share these actions in hopes that other White-led organizations – especially those who partner with us in the farm to school movement – can learn from us as an example. We valued your words of support and appreciation for Helen’s statement on Racial Justice in May. Now, we must move our words into action. 

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