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National Farm to School Network

News

News Release: Kids Eat Local Act Introduced in Senate & House

NFSN Staff Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Today, a bipartisan group of congressional leaders took an important step towards making it easier for schools to source locally grown, locally raised, and locally caught food and farm products for school meals. The Kids Eat Local Act, introduced by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Susan Collins (R-ME) and Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Josh Harder (D-CA), and Alma Adams (D-NC), would help break down barriers between school food purchasers and family farmers and food producers by simplifying local purchasing guidelines for school meal programs.

By including the Kids Eat Local Act in the next Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization, schools would be given a new, easier to use local product specification option through which they could specify “locally grown,” “locally raised” or “locally caught” in their procurement language, and then make the award to the lowest bidder who can meet that product specification. The addition of local product specification would substantially improve opportunities for local producers by providing more flexibility for school districts. The Kids Eat Local Act would also allow schools flexibility in determining the definition of “local” that best suits their needs.

National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition thank the bill sponsors in both the Senate and House for introducing the Kids Eat Local Act and paving the way for increased healthy food in schools and new economic opportunities for local farmers. We urge all members of Congress to support this simple, yet significant change and look forward to continue working with our partners and allies as this bill and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization move forward.

Read our full press release here.
Learn more about the Kids Eat Local Act here.

Have questions about the Kids Eat Local Act or want to learn more about how you can be a farm to school policy advocate? Contact Karen Spangler, our Policy Director, at karen@farmtoschool.org.

National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.

News Release: Farm to School Act of 2021 Introduced in Senate

NFSN Staff Thursday, April 22, 2021

Today, a bipartisan group of Senate leaders introduced the Farm to School Act of 2021 which will support our nation’s schools, farmers and communities in building back equitably from the Covid-19 pandemic. The bill, sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Susan Collins (R-ME), will expand funding for and programmatic scope of the highly successful USDA Farm to School Grant Program, while also ensuring that more communities – specifically those serving racially diverse and high-need student populations, as well as engaging with beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers – have a competitive opportunity to benefit from this valuable program.

A similar bill (H.R. 1768) was introduced in the House by Representatives Stacey Plaskett (D-VI), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Alma Adams (D-NC) in March.

"The Farm to School Act of 2021 couldn’t come at a more necessary time,” said Karen Spangler, Policy Director with National Farm to School Network. “When the pandemic began, school nutrition professionals, educators, and local food producers – the people who make farm to school work – were some of the very first community members to step up and ensure the ongoing care and support of children and families. The measures included in the Farm to School Act will give them much-needed resources to continue their work as we emerge from the pandemic, while helping our country build a more resilient and equitable food system."

The USDA Farm to School Grant Program provides funds on a competitive basis to schools, farmers, nonprofits, and local, state and tribal government entities to help schools procure local foods for school meals and to support activities like school gardens, hands-on science lessons, and new food taste tests. The program was originally funded as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and includes $5 million in annual mandatory funding.

Since the program’s inception in 2013, USDA has awarded over $52 million through Farm to School Grants, funding a total of 719 projects across all 50 States, the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico, reaching almost 21 million students in 47,000 schools. In recent years, the program has benefited from temporary funding boosts through annual appropriations. The Farm to School Act of 2021 would increase annual mandatory funding to $15 million to permanently allow more of these impactful projects to be realized. The proposed legislation, as introduced in the Senate, will also:
  • Increase the maximum grant award to $500,000,
  • Prioritize grant proposals that engage beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and serve high-need schools,
  • Fully include early care and education sites, summer food service sites and after school programs; and,
  • Increase access among Native and tribal schools to traditional foods, especially from tribal producers.
Read our full press release here.
Learn more about the Farm to School Act of 2021 here.

Have questions about the Farm to School Act of 2021 or want to learn more about how you can be a farm to school policy advocate? Contact Karen Spangler, our Policy Director, at karen@farmtoschool.org.

National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.

Meet Our New Teammates

NFSN Staff Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Meet Abby, Mackenize, Sophia, Sophia, Tiffany and Tomas below!
2021 has kicked off with exciting growth for the National Farm to School Network team! We’re thrilled to have welcomed six new teammates to our staff over the past several months, and are excited to introduce you to them. Across their different roles, they each play an important part in supporting National Farm to School Network’s vision of a just food system. Meet them below, and don’t hesitate to reach out and say hi.

Abby Katz - Policy Fellow
Abby Katz is our new Policy Fellow. Abby is completing her Master’s degree in Food Studies, with a focus on policy and history, at New York University. Her intersectional and interdisciplinary approach stems from her experience developing a major at the University of Connecticut, where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Food, Culture, and Sustainable Society (Individualized) and Human Rights. She also holds a certificate in Food and Sustainability Studies from The Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy. Abby's research interests are food policy, food history, cultural analysis, social justice, health equity, and sustainability. Her identity as an Afro-Latina shapes her interest in understanding the complexities of inequitable health outcomes in Black and Latinx/e communities – collectively and respectively. She also currently works in the Section on Health Choice, Policy, and Evaluation in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone, in addition to collaborating with Dr. Kristen Cooksey-Stowers in the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut. You can find Abby somewhere between coastal New England and the New York metro area, cooking, watching documentaries, and connecting with friends.

Mackenize Martinez - Program Associate, Native Communities
Mackenize Martinez has joined our team as a Program Associate, supporting our work in Native Communities. Mackenize is a native of Zwolle, Louisiana, and an enrolled Tribal member of Choctaw and Apache descent. She earned her undergraduate degree from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where she studied agricultural and animal sciences. Mackenize is currently enrolled in graduate courses at Arizona State University and plans to earn her Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems. Mackenize’s passions include engaging with livestock producers, implementing farm to school initiatives, and supporting Indigenous food systems through policy advocacy. Mackenize has served farmers, ranchers, and food producers in various capacities. In 2019, she advocated for farm to school efforts in Native communities while working collaboratively between the Intertribal Agriculture Council and National Farm to School Network as the Partnership Communications Intern. In the spring of 2020, Mackenize served as a congressional intern in Washington, DC, for the House Committee on Agriculture’s majority office. During her time as an intern with both the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and Native American Agriculture Fund, she was actively engaged in nationwide efforts geared towards promoting food sovereignty and supporting Indigenous farmers and ranchers.

Sophia Riemer - Programs Fellow
Sophia Riemer is our 2020 Programs Fellow. Sophia recently finished a Masters in Public Health Nutrition from University of Washington's Graduate Coordinated Program in Dietetics. While in the program, she evaluated Washington State Department of Health’s fruit and vegetable incentive program using a community-based participatory approach. She is currently coordinating Washington State’s Farm to ECE implementation grant, where she is able to unite her passions for farm to school, healthy food access, and addressing inequities in our communities. Sophia also brings experience in farm to school nonprofit management from her time as program manager of Sprouts Cooking Club’s after school program, overseeing gardening, nutrition and culinary classes in over twenty schools across the California Bay Area. In her free time you can find her swimming or snorkeling on the Southern California coastline, cooking, gardening, reading, or hiking.

Sophia Rodriguez - Communications Intern
Sophia Rodriguez is our 2020 Communications Intern. Originally from Hinesville, Georgia, Sophia is a junior at the University of Georgia where she is studying Human Development & Family Sciences and International Affairs with a minor in Spanish. As a pottery enthusiast, aspiring community gardener, and avid 4-H'er, she enjoys using her creativity to inspire equity-informed positive youth development. Sophia currently serves on National 4-H Council's Young Alumni Advisory Board, and she’s excited to use her passions and experience to contribute to the food justice movement. Sophia has helped launch National Farm to School Network’s new TikTok account - check us out at @FarmtoSchool!

Tiffany Torres - Strategic Plan Fellow
Tiffany Torres has joined our staff as Strategic Plan Fellow and will support our efforts in working towards our new call to action: By 2025, 100% of communities will hold power in a racially just food system. Tiffany is based out of Florida and brings extensive experience in farm to school and working with producers. She formerly supported farm to school efforts in Florida while working for the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension and is a former FoodCorps service member.

Tomas Delgado - Program Manager
Tomas Delgado has joined our staff as Program Manager, focused on supporting our work in Native Communities and with farmers and producers. Based in Illinois, the Prairie State, Tomas is passionate about building and supporting socially equitable and environmentally resilient communities. Tomas has experience in public and non-profit administration, scientific and policy research, ecological restoration efforts, and community organizing for social, environmental, and food justice. Tomas has a background in geography from Eastern Illinois University where he obtained a Bachelors of Science in Human Geography and is currently finishing a Masters degree in Geographic Information Sciences (GIS). Tomas’ academic background concentrates on the nexus of community-based, environmental resilience as it relates to land use and natural areas conservation policy, with a heightened focus on BIPOC and ancestral environmental stewardship. In his role as Program Manager, Tomas will oversee NFSN’s support of projects in Native communities and will serve as the lead for the NFSN’s work on Bringing the Farm to School, a new training program for agricultural producers across the country. Tomas currently resides in Urbana, Illinois where he is involved in local mutual aid systems and serves on a number of public boards and advisory commissions. Tomas enjoys collecting music, traveling, cartography, cycling, hiking, and coffee.

News Release: Farm to School Act of 2021 Introduced in House

NFSN Staff Thursday, March 11, 2021

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders introduced the Farm to School Act of 2021 (H.R. 1768) which will support our nation’s schools, farmers and communities in building back equitably from the Covid-19 pandemic. The bill, sponsored by Representative Stacey Plaskett (D-VI), Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Representative Alma Adams (D-NC), will expand funding for and programmatic scope of the highly successful USDA Farm to School Grant Program, while also ensuring that more communities – specifically those serving racially diverse and high-need student populations, as well as engaging with beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers – have a competitive opportunity to benefit from this valuable program.

When the pandemic began, school nutrition professionals, educators and local food producers – the people who make farm to school work – were some of the very first community members to step up and ensure the ongoing care and support of children and families. The measures included in the Farm to School Act of 2021 will give them much-needed resources to continue their work as we emerge from the pandemic. Furthermore, the bill’s emphasis on ensuring equitable access to this important grant program will help those who have been most impacted by the pandemic, including Native and tribal communities, racially diverse communities, and early care and education sites. There has never been a better time to build on the successes of this program.

The USDA Farm to School Grant Program provides funds on a competitive basis to schools, farmers, nonprofits, and local, state and tribal government entities to help schools procure local foods for school meals and to support activities like school gardens, hands-on science lessons, and new food taste tests. The program was originally funded as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and includes $5 million in annual mandatory funding.

Since the program’s inception in 2013, USDA has awarded over $52 million through Farm to School Grants, funding a total of 719 projects across all 50 States, the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico, reaching almost 21 million students in 47,000 schools. In recent years, the program has benefited from temporary funding boosts through annual appropriations. The Farm to School Act of 2021 would allow more of these impactful projects to be realized by:
  • Increasing annual mandatory funding to $15 million and increase the maximum grant award to $250,000,
  • Prioritizing grant proposals that engage beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and serve high-need schools,
  • Fully including early care and education sites, summer food service sites and after school programs, and
  • Increasing access among Native and tribal schools to traditional foods, especially from tribal producers.

Read our full press release here.
Learn more about the Farm to School Act of 2021 here.

Statements from the Farm to School Act of 2021's Cosponsors:

Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI): “Millions of students are eating healthier and engaged in food and agriculture education because of the Farm to School Program. It is a commonsense program that benefits children and their families while providing economic opportunities to our farmers. The increased demand for Farm to School programming tells us that more people are beginning to understand the connection between local foods and healthy young minds. I’m proud to introduce this legislation in support of our nation’s schools and local farmers who help improve classroom diets and local economies.”

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Ranking Member, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration (FDA): “The Farm to School program feeds kids, teaches kids, inspires kids. What an impactful, nutritious way to connect the farm to the family, enhance regional economic benefit, and promote good health. I am happy to lead the development of the program.”

Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), Vice Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture: “The Farm to School Grant Program supports healthy students and strengthens our local food systems. The Farm to School Act of 2021 expands participation in this critical program and increases its funding, which is more important than ever as our students, schools and farmers face difficult challenges due to the global pandemic. Teachers, parents, and farmers all know that healthy students are successful students, so I am proud to support the introduction this important legislation.”

Have questions about the Farm to School Act of 2021 or want to learn more about how you can be a farm to school policy advocate? Contact Karen Spangler, Policy Director, at karen@farmtoschool.org.

National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.

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.

Meet Our 2021 Advisory Board Members

NFSN Staff Thursday, January 14, 2021

Artwork by Bonnie Acker 
National Farm to School Network is fortunate to have an Advisory Board composed of 17 smart and passionate advocates who guide us in the work we do. At the beginning of this new year, we want to extend our deep thanks and gratitude to those who served on our Advisory Board in 2020 and welcome a few new members to this important cohort.

This past year was a significant one for National Farm to School Network, which included navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, deepening our commitment to racial justice, and announcing our new Call to Action. We are grateful to these 2020 Advisory Board members who worked alongside us last year: 
  • Anneliese Tanner, Austin Independent School District
  • Bertrand Weber, Minneapolis Public Schools
  • Betsy Rosenbluth, Vermont FEED
  • Brandon Seng, Michigan Farm to Freezer
  • Caree Jackson Cotwright, University of Georgia - College of Family and Consumer Sciences
  • Catherine Compitello, The Beacon Fund
  • Erin Croom, Small Bites Adventure Club
  • Haile Johnston, The Common Market
  • Jamese Kwele, Ecotrust
  • Janie Hipp, Native American Agriculture Fund
  • Laura Edwards-Orr, Center for Good Food Purchasing
  • Ricardo Salvador, Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Silvia Abel-Caines, Organic Valley
  • Simone Washington, Business for Social Responsibility
  • Sommer Sibilly-Brown, Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition
  • Wande Okunoren-Meadows, Little Ones Learning Center
  • Vanessa Herald, University of Wisconsin - Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems
At the end of 2020, we said farewell to Janie, Ricardo and Vanessa. We are especially grateful to Janie for advising us on working with Native communities, to Ricardo for contributing his racial justice and policy advocacy expertise, and to Vanessa for her farm to school content expertise and for being a long-time and continued NFSN state partner. 

As we say these thank yous and farewells, we are also excited to announce the addition of three new board members in 2021
  • Jennifer Gaddis - Jennifer is an assistant professor of Civil Society and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Jennifer's scholarship centers the perspectives of frontline cafeteria workers and focuses on topics including the history of the national school lunch program, farm to school efforts, food work as a form of care work, and values-based universal school lunch programs. 
  • May Tsupros - May is a Founding Collaborator of SunTree Collaboration and co-founder of Gardeneers. In addition to her work with SunTree Collaboration, whose mission is to unearth, build, and strengthen connections between many local food, environmental, and health-related stakeholders, May is also Director of People and Partnerships at Partridge Creek Farms where she works to promote food education and improve local access to fresh produce.
  • Valerie Segrest - Valerie is a Native foods nutritionist and the Regional Director of Native Food and Knowledge Systems for the Native American Agriculture Fund. Valerie is an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and is a nutritionist who specializes in Native American Food Traditions and has over a decade of experience developing food sovereignty strategies and culturally relevant food and nutrition curriculum and educational interventions.
We are also appreciative of those stepping into leadership positions on the board this year:
  • Haile Johnston, Chair
  • Simone Washington, Vice-Chair
  • Laura Edwards-Orr, Governance Committee Chair
  • Betsy Rosenbluth, Strategic Plan Committee Chair
This year, the Advisory Board will be focused on implementing our 2020-2025 Call to Action, which focuses on racial equity and shifting power in our food system; continuing the NFSN Advisor-Staff Mentor Program; taking part in board professional development activities (including racial equity, shifting power, and policy advocacy); and diversifying our funding and increasing support for general operations of our organization. (Want to give them a jump start? It’s easy to make a donation right now! )

Many thanks again to our outgoing Advisory Board members, and welcome to our new members! We look forward to working alongside you these next 12 months towards our vision of a racially just food system for all. 

Condemning More of the Same and Working To Change It

NFSN Staff Friday, January 08, 2021

By Helen Dombalis, NFSN Executive Director

2020 – and now the start of 2021 – are pushing the conversation around race and systemic racism in this country to the main stage. Despite this recent heightened level of attention, what I and everyone around the world witnessed on Wednesday in our nation’s capital is not something that was created overnight nor over the last four years. Racism and otherness are the foundation of our nation, democracy, and food system.

As a white woman in America, I have the privilege of not seeing and feeling the hatred that is prevalent everyday for people of color in our country. I only see it when it is pushed to the main stage, and even then, I don’t feel it because my skin color protects me from that. And to be able to brush aside reality when it’s inconvenient, sad, or otherwise something I want to pretend doesn’t exist is exactly what white privilege is. I must speak out against the very privilege I hold and we saw displayed on Wednesday instead of condoning it through silence.

What unfolded this week is a reminder for us at National Farm to School Network about the necessity and urgency of doing anti-racist work. White privilege, white political power, and white supremacy are forces with long legacies in the history of this country and were undoubtedly on display through acts of intimidation, normalization of violence, and use of blatantly racist symbols and rhetoric by extremists this week, aiming to invalidate democratically cast votes in states with large Black and Indigenous populations.

National Farm to School Network condemns what happened. Also, we know this week’s events are yet another example of the deeply rooted structural and institutional racism and conscious bias that exists within our country. And it’s a reason why as Executive Director of National Farm to School Network – and on a personal level as a human being and mother – I remain committed to refocusing NFSN’s work to shifting power to those who have historically and systematically been marginalized, exploited, oppressed, and excluded. Dismantling racism and upholding democracy are fundamental actions we must take in order to achieve food justice, and to achieve justice in every aspect of our society. Standing up for justice and deferring to the leaderships of Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian, and other people of color who do the essential work of organizing and advocating in their communities every day is what we strive for and what this moment reminds us we must continue to do.


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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