Connecting the Dots: The Journey From Farm to Cafeteria Tray

I am truly honored and humbled to be this year's Young Food Leader for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Growing Green Awards. Truthfully, I'm accepting this award on behalf of the many wonderful stakeholders I work with each day to get more farm-fresh, healthy foods in Washington, D.C. school meals. The journey from seed-to-cafeteria tray is long and complex. My role is to shepherd the process from start to finish, and help local schools actionably transform the quality of their food. But along each step of the way there are food champions working on the ground -- those are really the folks who truly deserve this award.

I grew up with cows in my backyard. My uncle owns a small farm with an assortment of pigs, chickens, fruits, vegetables and berries. But I wasn't really interested in food until I spent some time abroad in France during college, and got a glimpse of how an entire country revolves around a robust culture of food. I returned home from France after college and made my way down to Washington, D.C. to look for work.

I thought I'd find myself engaging in national issues, but what I found in D.C was a broken school food system in dire need of repair. D.C. Public Schools had been churning through Food & Nutrition Services directors for years, and the director in place at the time was fired months after I arrived. Most of the food was airplane style -- pre-made meals on heat-and-serve trays with few fresh or scratch-cooked options. It's always a shocker when you stop and think about how so many kids are disconnected from the local food system. You can't blame them, when processed and well-traveled alternatives are so cheap and readily available. The first orange food most D.C. kids can think of isn't carrots -- it's Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

I began listening to anyone who'd share about how the school food system worked, what changes were needed, and where the biggest gaps were. Parents, teachers, school food service staff, non-profit leaders, government officials -- everyone had a story to tell about how to get more farm-fresh, healthy options in schools. But no one was connecting the dots. I was fascinated with the complex challenge at hand. My engineering mind and my public health readied me to take it on. And looking back at my degrees in Environmental Engineering and Community Health, farm to school is also a perfect confluence of my interests in sustainability, disease prevention, and youth engagement.

Unfortunately this was in the fall of 2008, at the peak of the financial meltdown. While waiting tables, staying on a relative's couch, and taking on a few internships to help pay the bills, I began tackling the issue. I researched how farm to school programs across the country were taking on some of the same problems facing D.C. The loose collaboration of stakeholders interested in school food reform became known as the D.C. Farm to School Network, and I became their fearless leader. The Capital Area Food Bank took me on board as an intern and found funding from Kaiser Permanente for a full time salary for me shortly thereafter. The rest is history!

The first project I tackled was coordinating D.C. Farm to School Week. In its third iteration this year, the Week has grown to the point where each fall, over 200 schools across the city feature locally-grown farm products in school meals and engage over 5,000 students in activities like chef demonstrations and farmers-in-the-classroom. I organized a series of Farm to School Workshops designed for school food service stakeholders in the District share best practices. I launched an annual spring event called Strawberries & Salad Greens -- I'll bet you can guess what that looks like.

The Network's greatest accomplishment thus far has been the implementation of a local law called the Healthy Schools Act, passed in 2010. Noted as a national model of school wellness legislation, the Act is one of the first in the country to provide financial incentives to schools that serve fresh, locally-grown products, and requires schools to educate students about the importance of where their food comes from. I worked tirelessly to help craft the legislation, assure support at City Council, secure funding, and oversee the implemention of the law.

What began as one person with an ear to the ground has since blossomed into a robust and widely supported organization with an invaluable commitment to creating institutional change through healthier school food systems. The full range of my work now includes coordinating buyer-grower meetings, managing staff, leading educational programs, policy advocacy, delivering technical assistance, planning special events, presenting at conferences, representing the Network in local and national coalitions, maintaining partner relations, and managing all communication (including a website, two newsletters, and social media).

Where does the D.C. Farm to School Network go from here? Well, we've switched over from the Capital Area Food Bank to a new organizational home, called Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture. At Arcadia we've been able to grow to a staff of two, plus two part-time folks. Not only are we cultivating sustainable, innovative, and practical relationships between farmers and schools, we're also educating the next generation of consumers that's soon to hit the American economy. We're tasked with engaging schoolchildren and their families in the farm-to-table process so there's some "buy-in" to this whole concept. Because it's one thing to serve healthy, farm-fresh food; it's another for kids to actually eat it! Only then will we satisfy the "triple bottom line" of farm to school programs -- good for the local food economy, good for child health, and good for the community.

In a series of blog posts to follow, you'll meet a few of the food champions working with D.C. School to Farm Network to make D.C. school food, good food, as I highlight the seed-to-tray journey at one public charter school in Washington, D.C. Even though 85 percent of the student body is considered low-income, their passionate School Food Service Director has been able to connect the dots for healthy school meals and source all sorts of local products including pasture-raised grass-fed ground beef. And the kids dig it, due to the innovative efforts of their School Wellness Coordinator and Garden Teacher who've helped build a school culture of wellness at the school centered on food.

Check out this slideshow to get a peek into a day in the D.C. Farm to School world:

Connecting the Dots: The Journey From Farm to Cafeteria Tray