Local Farms, Health Kids – The Small-Scale, Sustainable Producer’s Role in This Legislatively Mandated Opportunity

Project Overview

FW09-016
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $14,600.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Laura Plaut
Common Threads Farm

Commodities

  • Fruits: apples, berries (other), berries (blueberries)
  • Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, tomatoes

Practices

  • Education and Training: demonstration
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: public policy

    Summary:

    The original intention of this project was to identify what niche, if any, small-scale producers could play in the opportunities for vending to local school districts presented by the Washington State “Local Farms Healthy Kids” Legislation.

    Crop trials, season extension and a focus on providing other producers with the tools needed to most effectively vend to school districts were all part of the originally proposed scope of work.

    Introduction

    Local Farms, Healthy Kids – but what about the food service “system?”

    Almost immediately upon embarking on this project it became apparent how very ill-prepared School District Food Service Managers were to source local food. (Parenthetically, it is worth mentioning that several of the grant reviewers speculated that this would be the case!) Unless and until food service staff were more willing and able to source locally grown produce, much of the work plan of this project would be irrelevant.

    It was simply not in the existing culture or practices of food service staff to source local food – let alone local food from small-scale producers. In general, the food service managers (there are nine school districts in Whatcom County) were all accustomed to “one-stop” shopping through Food Services of America or Cisco, and this method of sourcing food was easier, cheaper and more familiar to them than sourcing food locally.

    The thrust of the project consequently shifted from the originally proposed field trials and farmer workshops to concerted efforts working with food service staff, parents, teachers and district administrators to shift the culture of school purchasing practices. As good fortune would have it, receipt of SARE funding for this project coincided almost perfectly with an upswell of interest in, and support, for Farm to School initiatives within Whatcom County. Much of the work reported in “Accomplishments” below is work that I was a part of but can by no means claim sole responsibility for.

    Through this Western SARE-funded project, I have had the opportunity to become part of an impressive and enduring team of parents, farmers and educators working to get more local, fresh, sustainably grown food into schools.

    Project objectives:

    Start where we are, rather than where we would wish ourselves to be

    Because the focus of this project shifted so dramatically toward working with food service staff and school district systems to find ways that they could accommodate locally grown produce, none of the field trials and season extending strategies were implemented.

    Honestly, I do not see this as a “failure” of the project, but rather as a realistic reorientation of the project to address the bottleneck that was represented by food service staff not knowing how to deal with and/or not being willing to source local food. My choice to delay – indefinitely – field trials and season extension strategies, was very much in keeping with the original feedback of one of the grant reviewers who recommended that I delay “the start of the vegetable production phase until (I) know more precisely what the real questions are that will face the small producer for taking advantage of this great opportunity.” This reviewer was right on the money!

    During the funding period of this grant, I have:

    • Served as a volunteer member of the Bellingham Farm to School Advisory Committee (and I continue to serve in this capacity)

    • Provided coordination for the Farm to School efforts in the Ferndale School District

    • Launched a county-wide school garden collective, recognizing that getting kids engaged experientially in growing and preparing food is a way to build demand for and appreciation of more locally sourced foods in the school meal programs

    • Helped to create the infrastructure and educational materials for getting food service staff, parent volunteers, teachers, administrators and students more ready for locally sourced foods.

    Other exciting things that have happened (but for which I do not claim any credit):

    • A local philanthropist has invested heavily in Farm to School (including the school garden project referenced above), resulting in a proliferation of pilot projects, all of which are in the process (we hope) of creating the “perfect storm” for changing the culture of Farm to School in Whatcom County. See http://www.whatcomcf.org/Farm_to_School2.html

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.