To the USDA and back again

If you’ve been reading along, you’ll know that we are in the middle of a USDA Farm to School planning grant.  As part of this grant, representatives from each of the funded districts went to D.C. for a two-day conference last week.

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Ashley, our consultant, me and Susi, Pathways Director in front of the US Department of Agriculture where our meeting was held

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan addressed our group at the Whitten Building.  In her remarks, she said three things I will remember.  One, everyone believes in the Farm to School concept:  kids get healthy food, and local economies are stimulated.  Two, despite the simplicity of the concept, the implementation is very difficult. (I just wrote about that here!)  Three, Farm to School is one of the things the USDA is truly excited about, having invested 4.5 million in this project this year alone. They told us repeatedly that as the first cohort of grant recipients, we are the ones pushing this movement forward, and they are looking forward to seeing what we do and how we do it.  We are grateful for their vision and support.

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To equip us with tools, we had presentations on subjects such as promoting food safety, procuring local food, and marketing our programs.  It was great stuff—kudos to all of the staff who made this possible.

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Our group is incredibly diverse.  A district with 200 students in South Dakota was represented (smaller than us!) as well as districts with dozens of schools and 50,000+ students .  We heard about efforts in sourcing local bison for burgers, introducing salad bars in a state that has never featured them before, and partnering with hometown NFL teams to promote good nutrition on campus. Some of our most valuable moments were chatting with our fellow grant recipients:  What are you doing? How are you doing it?  For example, we struck up a conversation with a group of folks during a break about school lunch vendors—turns out one of them is the star of the new documentary film “Cafeteria Man.”  (http://cafeteriaman.com)

We also got to do a few fun things like dine out at the ah-mazing “farm to table” restaurant Founding Farmers and have a private tour of the Food 1950-2000 exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

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The exhibit, which includes Julia Child’s kitchen, has a long dining table in the middle of the room. On “Lazy Susans” running down the middle of the table, discussion questions and information was presented on the topic of “food pyramids” over time and across cultures. These topics will change, and next up is “school lunch.”

Our White House garden tour was cancelled (sequester!), and so I didn’t get the chance to ask Michelle out to coffee to talk about gardening, parenting, the challenge of being married to busy men, etc.  The upside was that I had some extra time to tack on a breakfast, stroll to the Mall and connect with dear D.C. friends.  Coming up next: the childrens’ garden at the National Botanic Gardens.

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68 grants nationwide—and we got one!

USDA Awards First Grants to Increase Local Foods in Eligible Schools:  68 Projects Support Nearly 2 Million Students

WASHINGTON, Nov. 14, 2012 – Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan today announced more than $4.5 million in grants for 68 projects, spanning 37 states and the District of Columbia, to connect school cafeterias with local agricultural producers. 

“When schools buy food from nearby producers, their purchasing power helps create local jobs and economic benefits, particularly in rural agricultural communities,” Merrigan said. “Evidence also suggests that when kids understand more about where food comes from and how it is produced, they are more likely to make healthy eating choices.” 

The first-ever USDA Farm to School grants will help schools respond to the growing demand for locally sourced foods and increase market opportunities for producers and food businesses, including food processors, manufacturers, distributors. Grants will also be used to support agriculture and nutrition education efforts such as school gardens, field trips to local farms, and cooking classes. 

We heard last Friday that our district received one of these coveted grants in what we’re told was a very competitive grant cycle. (Thank you Susi!)  This means, among other things, that I will be the Farm to School Grant Coordinator for the next year, starting December 1st.  And you can be sure I’ll be sharing all that I learn here (and there, and everywhere).  Here’s what I’ve learned so far:  it’s very exciting to get a cutting edge federal grant in your little country school district.