A Place and Its People: Justice in the Farm to School Movement
I’d like to ask you all to close your eyes and listen while I read a common version of the Haudenosaunee (how-dee-no-SHOW-nee) people’s daily Thanksgiving Address.
I’m reading this to honor the history and the ecology of the place where we’ve come together today, and with respect for the first people:
We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so. Now our minds are one.
With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Plant Foods we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans, and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them, too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a greeting of thanks. Now our minds are one.
You can open your eyes.
When I started to think about what to say to you all today, I first wanted to get to know more about the place. And I’ve never been here before.
If we’re going to talk about the value of school gardens, farm to school programs, urban agriculture, and food or ag-based education, we need context. It matters where we are. We’re obliged to the seasons, the soil, the history, and the people—not to mention the politics.
At its essence, the movement to bring our children back to the earth and empower them to feed themselves with dignity, is about recognizing how to know and appreciate a place. In fact, educators often refer to our whole field of work as “place-based learning.”
Recently, in Ithaca, where I live, I’ve been attending vigils and prayer circles for Standing Rock, where the largest indigenous people’s movement in history is currently underway to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline. Leaders from the Onondaga Nation have been guiding the vigils, and speaking of the desecration of the waters in Standing Rock in relation to the Onondaga waters here in Syracuse. So, when I thought about speaking today, and this place, I started with the water.
When we talk about a food system, or the land or the people involved, we are implicitly talking about the water, too. It’s all one system, in one place.
Today, Onondaga Lake is profoundly contaminated. It’s been called the most polluted lake in the country. Multiple illegal land takings by state and federal government and unchecked industrial development have led to the continuous discharge of sewage and industrial waste into the Lake and its watershed. Fishing and swimming were banned decades ago because of the lake’s extreme toxicity. And while there has been some remediation by industry and upgrades to sewage system infrastructure, and the Onondaga Nation is fighting for the rights of their land and water, the lake remains heavily polluted and is one of many designated EPA Superfund sites within the original Onondaga territory.
When I was first involved in a youth garden project, I had just finished a year studying the federal policy climate around local school food and school gardens.
I began this research after discussing resource inequities with my history of physics professor, of all people, during office hours. It was 2008. The recession had hit, I was about to graduate college, and there was growing awareness of economic, social, and environmental crises.
Finally, our conversation landed on school gardens.
The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act was up for renewal, and the Obama administration had just taken office. I was jazzed up about the potential to effect change at the national level, but then realized how removed the people in power—in D.C.—were from those communities they were trying so hard to create change for.
The kids were always just statistics.
|Play with Your Food summer program
I reached out to everyone I could and started networking. My dad, a longtime landscaper, came to Ithaca for a day and helped me set up a fully mulched community garden plot. My friends and colleagues helped me put up a fence and keep it maintained. I had never gardened before.
One day each week, for six weeks, a group of eleven year olds would start the day at the garden, then explore or sell produce in the community, and cook a meal in the Cooperative Extension kitchen.
I remember the first time they all walked through the garden’s fence door and looked around. Standing stock still. Faces that said: No. Way.
Then we went over to the lettuce plants, which were already big and beautiful. We were making salads, shishkabobs, and mint lemonade in the garden that day.
I snapped up a lettuce leaf and took a bite. One of the kids started making puking noises.
|Iron Chef Battle
They made good food. They could also discuss gardening, nutrition, nutrient cycles, business, and marketing, with confidence. These young people were aware of their part in Ithaca’s food system.
|Grow Pittsburgh Edible Schoolyard
It doesn’t pay well and it’s often beyond frustrating, but this work has been my calling.
And, for the record, it depends entirely on building, and maintaining, relationships.
But what does that mean? And is it possible to begin to address food justice without also tackling environmental and economic injustices?
|The Fifteenth Ward of Syracuse
In 2000, the residents of Southside formed a Partnership for Onondaga Creek, to oppose the county’s new plans to mitigate combined sewer overflows and its implied environmental racism.
The group was repeatedly rejected from participating in negotiations, until the Onondaga Nation began to advocate alongside them. Both of these groups have been marginalized and displaced from their homes, while their watersheds and foodsheds are destroyed by the development agendas of the ruling class.
Neither groups’ claims of injustice have been fully legitimized in the eyes of the state over time. They have been systematically disenfranchised. But our cities’ built infrastructure and urban planning processes are central to the potential for food justice to play out in a place.
According to Jessi Lyons, who manages the farm, however, there’s no funding within the schools to support field trips and so only schools within walking distance can easily visit.
And the funding climate is bound to get worse in coming years, not better.
So how will our movement continue to grow?
Last year in Tompkins County, Ithaca City Schools discovered high lead levels in the water. Since then, the district has banned the use of running water for drinking or preparing food. All water is now brought into the schools in plastic containers, and we can no longer wash fresh farm produce in the district’s central kitchen or any of the cafeterias.
But we’re resilient. In Ithaca, we recently partnered with a food hub that now orders, washes, and processes locally grown produce for classroom snacks, serving over 1,200 students two days each week. We expand the program to schools with high numbers of low-resource families, which include both rural and urban schools. We’re exploring ways to apply this food hub model to school meals as well, and to scale up in Tompkins and other counties over time.
Many classrooms receiving these snacks also visit the Youth Farm Project for farm field trips where they plant seeds, explore the compost, and meet the chickens before harvesting ingredients for a fresh snack they prepare and eat on site.
|The Fresh Snack Program
Children have the power to recognize that where they live and attend school are not only defined by political and institutional boundaries, but also defined by a food system, a watershed, a home for animals and plants, an ancient place, and a sacred place.
Our cities and our school districts are part of this reality. The water is not a separate issue from education, or from school food. What’s more, such institutions present us with a great deal of power to create change.
But that will require all of us to recognize and fight against the corporate profit motives that dictate our industrialized food system at every level, and fight for ways that children and families can truly connect with and appreciate their food sources every day.
It will require all of us to fight against abusive government policies, and fight for the inclusion of systematically oppressed peoples in community food system leadership, because they understand the needs of the land, the animals, and the people better than I or others like me—the privileged, and the comfortable—ever will.
Around the country, over 42,000 schools and 23 million students are engaged in some sort of farm to school program, including school gardens, compared with only a handful just 20 years ago. These programs provide fresh, whole food choices for cafeterias, classroom snacks, before- and after-school programs, early childhood centers, and summer meal sites.
School gardens, agriculture in the classroom, and field trips to farms and food processors are the hands-on educational components of Farm to School that can be integrated in subjects like science, math, and social studies.
According to the USDA, Farm to School programs and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables can help to mitigate the serious health threats caused by obesity, which as we all know has been on the rise for decades.
The comprehensive benefits of these programs extend beyond nutrition and human health. The CDC now supports the link between school nutrition and students’ academic performance. And when students experience the connection between the earth, our food, and our health, they understand the food system as a resource for social and environmental progress.
Farm to School programs have exploded in New York State as well. Almost half of the state’s school districts report to participate in Farm to School, involving over 750,000 students and 1,333 schools.
|Farm to School
The National Farm to School Network has been instrumental in this growth. The Network grew as a coalition of state and federal agency leads and has become increasingly powerful in policy, while also operating as a community-based support system. The USDA and many state governments, appropriate millions of dollars in grant funding for local food infrastructure and farm to school programs each year.
However, government Farm to School funding only became a reality once the Obama administration took office. Under the new regime, this funding is most likely going to disappear. And yet we must remain resilient. We must continue to build and bolster community food systems. And we must continue to have a strong, loud voice in policy and politics, including at the district, municipal, and state levels.
But, it is the youth in our communities today who will engage with policy in the future.
|Youth Farm Project
This work isn’t easy, and it’s about to get much more difficult. Already, teachers have no time in their days with which to add new programming. Already, school food service departments have only $1.00 per meal to spend on ingredients. Already, districts can’t afford to replace pipes that contaminate the water with lead.
And yet, even as legislative support ebbs or even disappears, we all have to continue to make our work more impactful, more systemic, and more sustainable.
At the same time, we have to be more inclusive and more aware of injustice than ever before. We have to help our students understand how the seeds they plant on the windowsill in March and spritz with water each morning not only grow into tomato vines and spaghetti sauce, but also give them real power—to be independent, caring, and strong in the face of oppression; to honor and respect the interconnections of land, water and animals; to feed their neighbors in hard times; and to become caretakers of the earth.
The future of our planet and its people—especially those places and people that have been oppressed—depend on us, quite literally, to live and teach this truth.
It sounds dramatic; but in today’s political climate it’s time to own the educator’s—and the parent’s—roles in a revolution.
So as we move into a new privatized policy era, how can we nevertheless grow the movement? How can we institutionalize food justice through our education system, while maintaining a community based approach?
Traditionally, Haudenosaunee chiefs would recite their creation story every year. The process could take up to twelve days. For the past one hundred years, however, only a few remaining elders know how to recite it, and it is rarely, if ever, recited in full today.
In the reading of their creation story, in which personified stars and planets begin to literally build a food system from the raw earth and its waters, the elders refuse to tell their communities what the meaning of the story might be, or the answers to the questions it brings up about humanity. Those listening must think for themselves, discuss the story, and create the meaning.
This is what we all have to do, as our creation story continues to unfold. So, while I encourage you to answer these questions for yourselves, as a community, I’ll leave you with a few ideas.
For starters, we do have momentum coming out of the Michelle Obama era. There are thousands of stories and detailed research. We can ride the moment.
Despite the paucity of resources in most districts, our school system presents an enormous opportunity to effect change. While grassroots community work that encourages dignity, leadership, and empowerment among community members is likely the most important work we have as a food movement, we must also gain power in our institutions. This requires working with them—including government, industry, and education.
The school system has the advantage of being an institution designed for our youth. Yes, it is a top-down institution. The Common Core State Standards are in many ways de-localizing education even more than before, and assessment requirements further reduce teachers’ flexibility in the classroom. The newest USDA Dietary Standards in many ways reduce the flexibility school food service programs have in menu design.
Yet, with each federal mandate comes an opportunity.
If we design farm field trips and school garden programs to meet Common Core standards and intersect with a STEM curriculum, hands-on food learning can potentially reach more students than ever before. We can organize and advocate more easily for state support of hands-on food learning in schools.
Similarly, if food service programs source farm fresh produce to meet their weekly requirements of orange/red, green, and starchy vegetables dictated by the USDA, we can actually be more specific about how to approach farmers, work with food hubs, and design cafeteria promotions around menu items. We can also make the case for Farm to School programs more readily to legislatures and funding bodies.
And though I barely touch on animal foods in schools, if you’re interested, the organization School Food FOCUS is doing amazing work to combine the buying power of major city school districts to afford hormone and antibiotic free meats.
In Tompkins County, we are strategizing for how best to make the case to district administrators to prioritize school food and hands-on food learning. This is a great challenge, but we can organize.
And I encourage you to join me as I begin a journey to become more familiar and involved with local government and policy.
I also encourage you to support the Syracuse school district’s new food service director as best you can as she navigates the rough waters of highly regulated budgeting and menu planning, while also trying to incorporate food grown here, in this place, by its people. It is no easy task.
The National Farm to School Network website is full of amazing resources to help all of us do this work. Curriculums, evaluation planning templates, educational materials, data and statistics, how-to guides about procurement and programming, policy outlines by state—you name it, you can find it there.
As we work with the system to create systemic change, we have to also remain constantly, intentionally aware of the inequity and injustice built into our system at every level, and to reverse it as best we can. People who have been disenfranchised by government and industry must lead the way in systemic change, as the rest of us support them on the sidelines with our privilege.
Even as racists and climate change deniers take over the federal government as we speak.
Making this possible is our challenge and our task as educators, as parents, as public health practitioners, and as caretakers of the land.
Audrey earned a Master of Public Administration from Cornell University, where she focused on institutional food systems.
She provides the following credits, thanks and references:
- Introduction: Myth of the Earth Grasper. John C. Mohawk
- Haudenosaunee Guide for Educators: Smithsonian.
- Perreault et al.: Environmental injustice in the Onondaga lake Waterscape
- www.water-alternatives.org Volume 5 | Issue 2 Perreault, T.; Wraight, S. and Perreault, M. 2012. Environmental injustice in the Onondaga lake waterscape, New York State, USA. Water Alternatives 5(2): 485-506
- National Farm to School Network : www.farmtoschool.org
- Locally Grown: Farm-to-School Programs in New York State
- New York State Comptroller, October 2016
- Jessi Lyons, Brady Farm
- Katherine Korba, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County