What I'm Learning in Farm to School
Updated: Sep 15
*A note from the author: I am by no means yet fully versed in ALL things school food service, nor ALL things local farms. This post serves as a starting point from which to build. I know there are still MANY nuances in both systems that I have yet to learn that will both help us build a successful program, and present new challenges. I look forward to discovering both, any, and all!
Do you remember those corn mazes that you enjoyed as a kid? (or as an adult, no judgement here!) They were a little scary, but pretty exciting, slightly frustrating, but ultimately satisfying because you finally navigated your way out and got to chow down on roasted corn slathered in butter and salt.
What does this have to do with Farm to School? More than you would think, actually.
When you walk into a scenario that is totally new (like a maze), it takes a while to get your bearings, assess the situation, figure out what tools you have to problem solve, and then slowly and with care, make your way through.
I have found that this is my approach to navigating our Farm to School Program. It’s new to me, even though I’ve worked in the food system for my entire career, so I have to take the time to figure out what I need to figure out - if you know what I mean.
For instance, school food service departments.
I have been on the receiving side (going through the cafeteria line), but I’ve never stepped back to see the whole picture, or maze, if you will (stay with me on this metaphor, I promise it’ll make sense eventually....maybe).
Dieticians, chefs, cooks, directors, buyers, orderers, etc. - these folks are represented by the corn stalks - the part that you see at work while you are navigating the maze.
Sometimes each person has one job, sometimes, one person has all the jobs - depending on the size of the school district and therefore, the size of the meal program. But either way, especially now, food service departments are often understaffed.
Food Service Staff at Laguna Middle School. Photo courtesy of SLCUSD Food.
Then, there are the standards and procedures that aim to make sure kids are fed nutritious food, at prices the district can afford, from sources that have proven their safety and quality.
These are under the surface, at the root of the corn stalks. Without these foundational guides, the corn will not flourish - the food service staff cannot maintain balance and health for themselves, nor the clients they serve - the kiddos.
As I examine the maze from the top down, the full picture becomes clearer. Each time I turn a corner, I gain more understanding of how this system is working, and how I work to enhance its health and flourishing.
So, I’m in the school food service maze and I’m getting to know it better, figuring out how to navigate to that roasted corn.
Are you still with me?...Good.
Now I have to figure out how to overlay another maze on top of the one I’m already in and make adjustments so that there are enough passageways to get me to that harvest season snack. The new maze represents our local farming system.
At the roots of the farming maze are also standards and procedures, but not the same ones as at the schools. These are food safety plans, organic farming standards, CA State agricultural regulations and USDA Federal agricultural regulations.
Although they are different guidelines, they actually work toward the same goals as those of the food service - produce food with the highest nutritional value possible, at a budget the farmer can afford, that is high quality and safe to consume.
This, my friends, is great news! There is a layer of both mazes that overlay easily! The systems have something in common!
After celebrating this small victory, I move on to the next layer, which is a bit trickier to navigate.
Remember how in the food service maze the corn stalks represented a variety of different staff members at each district (at least at the larger ones)?
Well, in our local farming maze, those corn stalks are often 1 or 2 people.
That means that the farmer has to (deep breath): plan what to grow, purchase or save seeds, be their own mechanic, manage workers (if they have any), maintain equipment and product inventory, make sure their food safety plans and any certifications are updated, market their product, monitor market prices to make sure they ask for a fair price, coordinate harvest, storage, deliveries + tracking all the paperwork required for each of these, etc., etc., etc.
And, these are just the tasks that I know about, I’m sure there are various others that would throw my mind into a whirlwind of ‘how do they do all that’? (Return to normal breath rate).
Now, that’s not to say that food service staff don’t equally have to wear a lot of hats when performing their daily duties - I know that they do. They also function in a whirlwind.
And that is partially why this layer of the maze is so tricky.
When we have two systems with food service workers and farmers who are busy all day every day, communication between the two can be rather challenging.
When the two mazes are overlaid on top of one another, as I am trying to do with Farm to School, I may be bringing the corn stalks closer to one another, but if there is no communication between the two, neither can navigate through this new maze - Farm to School.
But never fear! Communication is WHAT. I. DO! In this new Farm to School maze. I am talking to all the corn stalks to open up the passageways that get us all through to everyone’s goal - CORN!
If you’ve made it this far, 1. Thanks for sticking with me and 2. You’re probably asking, BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN??!!
What does the buttered, salted corn MEAN in this silly metaphor?
Well, in my mind, it represents a thriving local food system and economy.
Lemme explain. When our schools are able to spend their dollars on local food, our local farmers can increase their revenue, invest into the quality of their products and their lives, and in turn, spend their earned dollars back into our local food system, which grows both their crops, and our local economy!
So, in summary, how do we find our way out of the maze to that decadent corn cob slathered in butter?
We figure out what we have in common, what our collective strengths are, where we have weaknesses, and how we address those - TOGETHER.
What local schools and local farms have in common:
Both school food service departments and farms operate under mandates, certification requirements, paperwork requirements, and within systems that are not always easy to navigate.
Both entities are feeding A LOT of people.
Both entities want to provide the freshest, most nutritious and highest quality food to their customers.
Both entities want to ease complications in their daily operations.
Both entities want assurances - product is frequently purchased and frequently delivered within estimated time frames.
supply & demand
This is where Farm to School moves in for the assist!