Farm-to-school: It’s what’s for lunch

Local advocate wants farm-to-school programs on the menu

Gail Feenstra works as a food-systems analyst for the University of California.

Gail Feenstra works as a food-systems analyst for the University of California.

Photo by Karin Higgins, UC Davis

Gail Feenstra can’t get the embarrassingly small sum of 75 cents out of her mind. This is the amount spent on food per meal, per day for every child in federally funded school lunch programs.

The paltry number resonates for Feenstra like a mantra gone bad.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s irresponsible,” she said. “I used to be really frustrated with that. But then I realized that these people who get the funding are incredibly creative. That’s where the community comes in.”

Because it’s difficult to find fresh, healthy food with such limited funding, commodity or large-surplus foods with lower nutritional values are typically selected for public schools. With the increasing problem of childhood obesity, food-system professionals are intensely seeking healthier ways to feed children, and often with inadequate funding.

This is where Feenstra comes in. A food-systems analyst at the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program in Davis, Feenstra isn’t angry or bitter with the government. Yes, she wants more spent on school meals, but she’s determined to work with what the system provides. Feenstra coordinates SAREP’s sustainable food systems program, which links together farmers, consumers and communities. She hopes to expand a comprehensive coordination of local farms with schools, known as farm-to-school food programs.

There are currently none of these programs in Sacramento. In Davis, 20 percent of fresh produce for schoolchildren is purchased from local farms. Seventy-two farm-to-school programs involving 411 schools currently operate in California, and 2,000 programs exist nationwide.

Feenstra and colleagues have touted the program over the past eight years, helping to raise $500,000 to support these efforts. They desire more local programs, but sustaining the current corps is difficult without further funding.

“I am fascinated with the potential for institutional markets like schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, prisons and corporate cafeterias to purchase more food from regional growers,” Feenstra said. “Mid-sized family farmers need larger and more varied markets to remain economically viable. Community institutions need to be able to offer more fresh, healthful foods to their eaters.”

Feenstra brought her farm-to-school program knowledge and vision for its expansion to this year’s annual Cooking for Solutions conference in May. Feenstra, a petite woman with a curious smile and a deliberate, thoughtful voice, had plenty of information to share. She introduced the concept of the program to the media and gave examples of how school districts have incorporated sustainable agriculture into student diets and into curriculum through presentations and field trips to local farms.

The multiday conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is held in part to stimulate discussion about the challenges of moving sustainable or organic cuisine into the mainstream food and wine industry. Everyone from celebrity chefs to global retailers, farmers to fishermen, winemakers to experts from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program attended.

Feenstra was part of a four-person afternoon panel, which spoke about sustainable farming and seafood. Although she specializes in food systems for children, she easily extends her knowledge into other food areas. For people interested in living more sustainable lifestyles, Feenstra had an easy and fun idea: Throw a dinner party for friends; but don’t feed them prepackaged food bought from the grocery store. Try something different: “Go to a farmers’ market,” she said. “That’s an easy thing to do. You can get food there that is all local and probably organic. It wouldn’t have to be the full meal. But the fresh fruits and vegetables could be your showcase. And try to go to the farmers’ market the day of your meal. Tell the people you’re having over for dinner the produce is from a farmers’ market. It might interest them. They might say, ‘Gee, where is that farmers’ market? I might want to do that.’”

The same leading-by-example philosophy can work in school systems with students, parents and administrators working together—at least Feenstra thinks so. Seventy-five cents may be a horribly insufficient amount for children’s school meals, but education, increased program visibility and cooperation is a good place to begin improving the food we feed our children.

“We are part of large community in the sustainable world,” Feenstra said. “It’s all tied together. It’s forming partnerships to stretch those dollars. It’s making things happen, and it’s figuring out a way.”