Why “farm to school” isn’t just a buzzword

The trendy “farm to table” movement has often been criticized as elitist or exclusive to hipster foodies who won’t eat chicken at a restaurant unless they see the photos proving that it enjoyed a happy, free range life (Portlandia, anyone?). “Farm to school” may sound similarly trendy, but in Mississippi, serving healthy local products in school meals is more than just a foodie ploy to get kids to eat spaghetti squash (which would be awesome, by the way); it’s key to improving students’ and communities’ health and well-being.

Harvesting kale and collard greens. Look how big those leaves are!

Harvesting kale and collard greens. Look how big those leaves are!

At the 2nd annual Mississippi Farm to Cafeteria Conference this week, my fellow MS FoodCorps service members and I listened to Rose Tate, FoodService Director for the Mound Bayou School District in the MS Delta, recount her reasons for implementing the district’s farm to school program. It started with an elementary school student who suffered from type one diabetes. He would regularly collapse during the school day; the ambulance would often be called, and not surprisingly, his teachers complained of behavioral problems in class. The school nurse and administrators noticed that the child’s diabetic collapses would usually occur right after he ate his school lunch, a meal composed largely of processed, pre-packaged foods and simple carbohydrates like french fries.

Rose knew that something had to be done about the lunch program, especially when she later found out that 60% of the Mound Bayou student population had been diagnosed as “borderline diabetic.” Fearing a health crisis in her schools, Rose worked to bring locally grown fruits and vegetables onto the school lunch line, in addition to replacing all white bread with whole grain. Since then, Bayou Mound School District nurses have seen a dramatic decline in students’ health problems; teachers have noticed an improvement in children’s attention spans and test scores.

So, this is what we eat at Thanksgiving??

So, this is what we eat at Thanksgiving??

Replacing the pre-packaged, nutritionally deficient foods in school lunches (anyone remember those mystery meat chalupas?) with locally grown fruits and vegetables supplies students with the essential nutrition that they need to focus during class, feel good about themselves and grow up healthy, avoiding diseases like adult onset diabetes and obesity. More than that, farm to school programs support the local economy and small family farms.

Hangin' out in the kale forest.

Hangin’ out in the collards forest.

It was inspiring to hear from food service directors like Ms. Tate, as well as growers, non-profit directors, and government officials who are all passionate about serving kids healthy, delicious school meals. These folks’ diverse perspectives led to lively discussions about Mississippi’s nascent farm to school programs, including the obstacles that exist in putting these programs in place.  For one, most small farms can’t afford the safety certifications that many school districts prefer before purchasing produce. There is also the concern that children won’t eat the healthier menu items, and indeed critics have been quick to point out a rise in school lunch waste in schools that have started serving healthier foods. Of course students will balk when they first see a baked sweet potato in place of the french fries they are accustomed to. That’s why farm to school efforts must be accompanied by robust nutrition and garden education programming.

When children see sweet peas growing, when they learn how to cook squash, when they meet the person who grew the apples they eat at lunch, they are more likely to eat the nutritious, but unfamiliar items that show up on the lunch line, not to mention develop long-lasting, healthy relationships with their food. Even in the few months that I’ve been teaching classes, I’ve seen students  progress from refusing to eat an apple with the peel still on it to munching happily on uncooked kale stems.

Full disclosure: they're not going to like everything. This priceless face captured while trying Asian greens salad from the garden.

Full disclosure: they’re not going to like everything. This priceless face captured while trying Asian greens salad with homemade ranch dressing.

That’s why, with our garden education program established and growing, the logical next step is to start serving locally grown fruits and veggies in the cafeteria. My goal for 2014 is to work with the administrators at my school to bring in local products to replace some of the pre-packaged ones they order from a national commercial distributor.  I’m expecting pushback regarding cost, the additional time it will take to get bids from farmers and write up contracts, and the logistics of transportation and delivery, not to mention time and energy required to develop new recipes for menu items. But I think it will be worth it. Being a private non-profit school, we don’t have district-wide contracts in place that bar single schools from being able to change up their menus, so this is the perfect opportunity to pilot a farm to school program on a small scale.

Happy harvesting for a salad lesson.

Happy harvesting for a salad lesson.

Farm to school in Mississippi is not just a fleeting trend, it’s part of a multi-pronged solution to the public health crisis facing our country. It’s also the right thing to do. Access to good food is a basic human right, and teaching the younger generations how to grow up healthy is just as important as teaching them how to solve a quadratic equation. Let’s start by showing them how delicious locally grown sweet potatoes can be.

Gettin’ nippy in ‘Sippi

Fall in the 'Sip. There is a beautiful multi-use path along the Natchez Trace.

Fall in the ‘Sip. There is a beautiful multi-use path along the Natchez Trace.

I remember August 30, 2013 clearly– the humidity steamed up the windows of any air conditioned building, and the hot sun was obscured in a muggy haze.  That was the day the repairman came to our house to check on the gas and told us that our “central heating was in fine working condition.” Central heating? Mississippi? The idea of additional, intentional heat made me want to cry salty, sweaty tears.

Y’all: we switched on that heat over a week ago.  People here started pulling out their leather boots and sweaters when nighttime lows hit the mid 60s. I waited maybe another 5 degrees. Anyways, the point is that to the astonishment of my housemates (who didn’t even pack their coats) and I, Mississippi gets cold. Or, for all of you in actual cold climates, let me rephrase: it gets chilly. And to celebrate the late arrival of these autumnal temps, we threw a backyard housewarming party featuring sweaters, a bonfire, hot cider with whiskey, and this homemade spiced applesauce cake.

FoodCorps JXN gals love free espresso.

FoodCorps JXN gals love free espresso.

The cool weather has been refreshing, though, and it’s certainly made lessons in the garden more enjoyable. For farm to school week, I invited Jonathan Picarsic, gardener and owner of the local farm Amorphous Gardens, to come visit the school. It was a bigger hit than I expected; the kids adored the turkey and chickens that he brought, and it gave everyone an opportunity to check out our growing garden.  The day after Jonathan came to the school, I asked my 6 year old class what their favorite part of the farm visit was. One little girl blurted out “the pigs!!!” (There were no pigs.) Small steps, people.

Jonathan and the turkey. (Ssshhh, don't tell anyone that she'll be eaten in a few weeks)

Jonathan and the turkey. (Ssshhh, don’t tell anyone that she’ll soon be eaten)

Soft little chick. Check out our greens in the background!

Soft little chick. Check out our greens growing in the background!

Hi, little guy.

Hi little guy.

In addition to some overly creative imaginations, my youngest class is by far the most adventurous in terms of eating. In preparation for our farm to school visit, I had bought a box of Amorphous Gardens produce that contained some beautiful leafy kale, lemon basil, green onions, radishes, and different heirloom varieties of mustard greens. I used the greens in a simple kale salad, and had different toppings, or “pizzaz,” for the 6 year olds to add themselves. When I brought the salad into the classroom, the teacher looked at me incredulously and asked: “Do you actually eat that stuff?!” Oh, if only she could see what goes on in our kitchen at home….but that’s another story. To my surprise and the teacher’s, the students devoured their salads, even though their eyes widened in spicy surprise when they tasted the radishes.

My oldest class isn’t quite as brave when it comes to trying new things, but they’re definitely getting there. The Asian greens and lettuce that we planted over a month ago is ready to cut, so tomorrow we’ll be making a salad together in the garden.

And I’m giving in (kind of) to the popular request: “Can we have ranch?” We’ll be making our own healthy version! [insert evil healthy food laugh]

Big soul, little city

Is it cliche to say that Jackson is full of surprises and contradictions? Well, I apologize a million times, but it’s true. This city buzzes with the energy, talent, and creative drive of any large urban center, but it’s tempered by small town charm and the feeling that everybody knows everybody.

And the surprises?  Hip hop here is darn good.  Friday night we went to a benefit concert in the back lot of a self-identified “modern day juke joint” where I was blown away by the talent of the local hip hop artists.  There was a distinctly Southern flavor in the way their raps mixed pride for their Mississippi roots, love for family and community, and biting criticisms of modern inequality in the South.  If you want to hear an example, check out Mr. Franklin aka Kamikaze. There was also a killer brass band called Southern Komfort, and a lot of talented DJs, one of whom also happens to be a city councilman. And true to Jackson form, when we left, the bartender gave us a hug.

Fresh ideas in JXN.

Fresh ideas in JXN.

In other news, despite some initial confusion and skepticism, I’ve found a few strong allies in the teachers and faculty at my school who care deeply about healthy eating and outdoor education. Five teachers so far have shown interest in having me teach in their classes; I’ll be starting with two classes next week as well as working with the music teacher. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a great start and I’m optimistic that more teachers will be open to working with me once word spreads and the garden starts growing.

You can't see it yet, but that's going to be a school garden.

You can’t see it yet, but that’s going to be a school garden.

Speaking of gardening, last week Prentiss and I staked out the garden plots to prepare for tilling tomorrow. Since the majority of children at the school are hearing or speech impaired, we are building a sensory garden, moving away from the traditional boxiness of raised beds toward a more free-flowing permaculture design.  We went to the salvage yard yesterday to get some up-cycling inspiration. I’m going to scavenge for used wine bottles in order to make a whimsical pathway, kind of like this. We also found some old car tires that we’ll use as herb containers.

P.S.  And guess what? I’m joining the Jackson roller derby team. Roller derby name suggestions are more than welcome!!