October 9, 2019
Editor’s Note: This blog post is the first in a multi-part series which highlights the experiences of Farm to School grant recipients and how these grants have impacted their communities around the country.
In September, the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) brought three farm to school advocates to Capitol Hill to share the amazing farm to school work they’ve been doing with lawmakers in Congress. Much of the work that these advocates have been engaged in to source more local, healthy food into schools across Arkansas and Kansas is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm to School Grant Program.
During their visit to the nation’s capital, Allyson Mrachek and Maegan Brown from Arkansas, and Rachael McGinnis Millsap from Kansas visited eight congressional offices across their home states and had the opportunity to share both the successes they’ve seen, as well as the ongoing challenges, within their own communities. A central goal of their visit was telling decision makers in Congress why healthy food, family farm, and anti-hunger advocates want the next Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR) to include the Farm to School Act of 2019.
The Farm to School Act of 2019, for which NFSN and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) have aggressively advocated, would provide an additional $10 million in annual funding for the Farm to School Grant program. The bill would also make policy changes that would improve access to the program for Native American communities, and prioritize projects that engage beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers.
For Allyson Mrachek, advocating for farm to school was something that came naturally. She first got involved in farm to school work as a FoodCorps (an NSAC member organization) volunteer over seven years ago, and her interest and passion drove her to stay invested in the work and in her community. Today, Mrachek focuses on investing in the health of Arkansas’ youth as the Child Nutrition Director for Fayetteville Public Schools. During her seven years helping to advance healthy eating and farm to school activities at Fayetteville Public Schools, one of Mrachek’s biggest projects has been overseeing the district’s transition to local food procurement.
Fayetteville Public Schools received a USDA Farm to School grant, which they leveraged to make the transition to local food procurement district-wide. Fayetteville’s farm to school program now serves all of the district’s 16 schools and feeds over 10,000 students. Thanks to support from the Farm to School Grant Program, Fayetteville schools are able to feature at least one local ingredient on their cafeteria menus each week. Because of the local food procurement program, students are able to try a variety of foods from local farms, including ground beef, sweet potatoes, apples, and many other types of seasonal produce. The school district has also implemented a “Harvest of the Month” program, for which schools conduct monthly taste-tests of seasonal vegetables in their cafeterias for students.
“One of our community constituents always makes the comparison of the recycling movement and farm to school,” said Mrachek. “It was a foreign concept not that long ago, and now recycling is just what you do in most places. Some of those things that seemed weird or foreign—that education was brought home from school to parents. It’s the same thing with buckling up seat belts. A lot of the education came through students in public education to make a difference and change our culture.”
A little over two hours away from Fayetteville, Maegan Brown serves as the Food Service Coordinator for Conway Public Schools in Conway, Arkansas. For the last three years, Brown has overseen the district’s child nutrition work, which has been significantly boosted thanks to support from two USDA Farm to School Program grants. Conway received their first grant in 2015 for $50,000, which the district used to install two raised garden beds at every school. They also utilized a portion of the funds to overhaul a kitchen space in one of the schools to use for processing local produce during the peak summer growing season and distribute it to schools throughout the year.
In 2018, the district received a Farm to School Implementation grant of $100,000 to expand their school garden program, hire FoodCorps service members, bring on a professional chef, and purchase new kitchen equipment. In an effort to connect school community members to the farmers growing their food, Conway Public Schools has also created “farmer trading cards,” which feature the farmers who grow food for the district and highlight fun facts and information about them and their operations.
“It’s a win for the farmers, it’s a win for the students and it’s also a win for our cafeteria staff because they’re making that connection with their students,” said Brown. “One of our core values in our district is “students first”. I think that the school gardens and buying local is a prime example of “students first”. Not only in healthy eating, but in their education.”
In addition to the great work happening in Arkansas, Kansas has also been ramping up their farm to school engagement over the last few years. For over a decade, KC Healthy Kids has been one of the key organizations leading farm to school work in the state. Over this time, KC Healthy Kids has received three Farm to School Grants to advance their efforts across the city. Since joining the organization five years ago as their Farm to Institution Director, Rachael McGinnis Millsap has overseen the implementation of two of these Farm to School Grants.
Most recently, KC Healthy Kids leveraged a Farm to School Support Services Grant to research policy and procedural barriers to incorporating local food in schools across the 22 school districts on either side of the Kansas state line. KC Healthy Kids used the findings from this work to determine the needs of the districts and the most effective means by which to support and implement farm to school initiatives moving forward.
“These kids have a powerful voice,” said McGinnis Millsap. “They’re the ones that are eating it, that are getting excited about it…and that’s what’s going to take it into the community and have that ripple effect.”
October is National Farm to School Month, and throughout the month, NSAC will continue to highlight stories like these, which show the myriad ways advocates can benefit from and build support for Farm to School activities.
For a grounding in the history of this work at the federal level, check out our first farm to school blog of the month, “The Untold History of Federal Farm to School Support and Its Impact on Local Food Research.” Readers can also visit NSAC’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization page or take a look at our most recent Child Nutrition Reauthorization blog to get an update on what Congress is (or isn’t doing) on this issue. To stay tuned to advocacy and engagement opportunities, be sure to check out our Take Action page and sign up for our e-newsletter and Action Alerts emails here.