Bringing Farm to School with Local Foods Procurement Workshops

Ryan_GriffithThis week’s guest blog post is presented by FoodCorps Service Member, Ryan Griffith, who is currently serving with Conejo Valley Unified School District and the Nutrition Services Department. Along with the Food Service Director, Sandy Curwood, Ryan has attended and organized local food gatherings for all partners in farm to school. Read on to learn about the Local Foods Procurement Workshop he hosted earlier this winter.

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Teaming up:

On February 12th, 2015 farmers, food processors, distributors and school district food service directors gathered in a barn at Hansen Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Santa Paula. The title of the event: Local Foods Procurement Workshop. The event was meant to inspire local purchases in school lunch programs across the region. The attendees are the main stakeholders in the budding Farm to School programs in all corners of the tri-county area.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 10.12.43 AMSandy Curwood (my site supervisor) and I organized this event as a part of the South Central Coast region of the California Farm to School Network. As we all know, collaboration across county lines, as well as bringing together everyone involved in food system, is essential for creating change regarding our communities’ food.

Landscape:

The South Central Coast region of the California Farm to School Network covers Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. Three counties which have warm coastal climates, ideal for optimal year round growing. Three counties which should be easy picking for consistent local procurement — I wish it was that easy.

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The problem:

For better for worse, these counties represent the norm in California: “Big Ag”. I hate to throw that term around because it is loaded with images, an oversimplification of a complicated food system. Just to give an idea, in my daily commute from Ventura to Thousand Oaks I drive past headquarters for Monsanto, Driscoll’s, Rabobank, Ceres, Hollandia, Cultura, Agromin, Mission Avocados and acre upon acre of Sunkist orchards. The presence of these agricultural companies means that a large majority of the farms in the region are tied up in contracts that cause them to sell to these agricultural powerhouses. Of course, this can be a great position for a farmer: these companies offer contract security and distribution. Unfortunately, these demands are hard for school districts to fulfill.

Moving forward:

I first typed “the solution” as the title of this final section, but quickly replaced it, because there is still much work to be done. School food service is not an area in which I ever pictured myself working, nor did I think that it would be an area in which could I claim some kind of expertise. As a part of the workshop we presented some tools that I created with Sandy’s guidance. The tools are a practical translation of the new USDA guidelines on local purchasing for school lunch programs. A few months ago the thought of sifting through USDA guidelines would have made me run in fear, but learning about the new guidelines are encouraging for the future of Farm to School programs, especially for local purchasing. Through the “geographic preference” portion of the new guidelines, USDA is subtly encouraging local purchases. Allowing school districts to increase their budget for locally grown food is more than encouraging. Yes, even in a “Big Ag” state like California, local purchasing for school districts is looking up.

As we prepare for another school year of menus and educational opportunities, my service site continues to build its Farm to School network. The Ventura County collaborative, the California Farm to School Network, our distributors, teachers, parents, students and most importantly, the people who produce the healthy, wholesome and local food in our region are looking forward to another exciting year of collaboration!

To learn more about local food procurement from the experts at USDA, visit http://www.fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool/procuring-local-foods.

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