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Profile: Emily Ling, Texas Jail Project

NFSN Staff Tuesday, April 22, 2014

 

 

Editor's note: This week we are profiling a few of the wonderful people we met at the 7th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Austin last week. More than 1,100 farm to cafeteria movers and shakers gathered for four days of inspiring field trips, workshops, keynotes and more. we are excited to share their stories. 

Emily Ling grew up in a small town near Waco, Texas called Lorena, where her grandmother's garden was one of her first encounters with the power of food. She received her undergraduate degree from Baylor, then spent her 20s working with a variety of nonprofits and completing a masters at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. In her studies and early nonprofit work, Emily focused on juvenile justice and criminal justice reform. Working at the ACLU, she became passionate about mass incarceration and thought she would spend her life working on those issues, but the longer Emily lived in Austin the more she became interested in the local food movement and the justice issues involved with healthy eating.

After graduating in 2012, she went to live and work on the Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  The Farm’s name is Greek for "community," and it was started by a pastor in 1942 who wanted to create a place where blacks and whites could live and work together as equals. Getting healthy food to people who need it kept coming up in all of the issues she cared about where she had never seen the importance of food before. 

As a place that practiced hospitality, Koinonia welcomed a variety of visitors -- retired couples from other countries, businessmen from big cities, kids from the rural community, even families of immigrants whose loved ones were held at a nearby immigration detention center. As people of all races, classes and cultures ate meals together, Emily noticed how sitting around a table levels the playing field. We all need food.

She came to believe that if we all shared meals with people we don’t necessarily understand, it might go a long way toward helping us accept each other. 

Emily returned to Austin in September of 2013 and tried to figure out how all of her interests fit together. First, she started working with Green Gate Farms and fell in love with it.   

“You were working hard but you were also laughing constantly – oh and there were some pretty adorable piglets," she says.

 

After volunteering with Green Gate Farms for several months, Emily started volunteering with the Texas Jail Project as well, and in March she was hired as their project coordinator. The Texas Jail Project is a small non-profit that advocates for the nearly 67,000 people in county jail across Texas.  She works to collect the stories of people locked up there and how their experience in jail impacts not only their lives, but their families and communities.

While prisons make all the headlines and get all of what little attention people pay to this issue, county jails are like the emergency room for the criminal justice system. They are often full of poor people who cannot make bail and so stay locked up for weeks or months while they await trial. On average 50-60 percent of people in jail are people who have not been convicted of anything. For many, charges will be dropped or they will be acquitted by a jury of their peers, but until then, they sit in jail.

 

There are two major issues Emily wants to change:

First: The quality of food is often horrible in jails. In Texas, jail food only has to be "approved by a dietitian," but there are no policies that ensure that the food contains enough nutrients. Most people stuck in jail are poor, and they disproportionally have medical conditions that are exacerbated by an unhealthy diet. Emily suspects this has a huge impact on the cost of healthcare that must be provided to inmates, and she also believes there are links between diet and mental health.  

“For people that have been through struggles and trauma, eating poor quality food adds further harm to bodies that are likely already struggling physically and mentally," she says.

Second: Emily is interested in the potential to have more gardens and farms in prisons as therapeutic programming. It is also good skills training, and sustainable agriculture may be a great industry for ex-felons to find work upon their release. 

In Texas and the rest of the South, prison labor replaced slave labor for much of the agricultural industry, creating a difficult cultural history around agriculture in prison systems. Many families of color held not working in the fields as a source of pride and evidence of progress, so when talking about the "opportunity" of prison farms, one has to overcome that legacy.  It isn’t going to be easy.

Emily’s faith motivates both the food and the criminal justice work she is engaged in. "Christians are called to be good steward of the land, and we are not doing a good job of that,” she says. As for her prison work, “None of us are beyond redemption," Emily says. "Moses and David and Paul were all murderers. But the worst thing they ever did wasn’t the end of the story. It was upon receiving grace that they did their greatest good.”

She argues that we cannot just throw away people in jails and prisons. Unless people have a life sentence, they are coming back to our communities. Prisons have to be about rehabilitation, not just punishment. 

She says it takes more care and investment to understand what people have been through and help them rejoin society. It is harder, but that is the work she’s called to.

Conference recap: Advocating for change

NFSN Staff Thursday, April 17, 2014

The National Farm to School Networks' Farm to Cafeteria Conference continued on Thursday with the local plenary session. The Sustainable Food Center, the local host for the conference, organized a great series of speakers including Texas State Representative and founder of the Texas House Farm to Table Caucus, Eddie Rodriguez; South West Workers Union representative Diana Lopez; former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, Jim Hightower; and noted food and nutrition journalist, Toni Tippton-Martin.

If there was a theme that ran through the morning's presentations it was a call for advocacy. Whether to our elected representatives, to our neighbors or for often-overlooked parts of our communities, each of the speakers focused on the importance of speaking up.  Jim Hightower observed that "you don't make progress by standing guard" and he issued the following challenge:

  • Get your legislature to establish a farm to school caucus.
  • Speak from the values that inform our work: economic justice and opportunity for all. 
  • Go with your boldest agenda and negotiate from there.
  • Be respectful, but make sure all of your representatives know your name.
  • Establish a speakers bureau and go speak everywhere that will give you the floor.

As the day progressed, people began speaking up. First they spoke up about what they wanted to discuss in the open space session. A wide range of important topics were raised and attendees jumped into self-organized meetings to make plans for future efforts.

 

Next, the crowd voted with their dollars at an array of Austin food trucks -- small businesses with a reputation for disrupting entrenched food systems.

 

At the lighting talks and the poster and share fair, the group mixed and mingled with a wide range of partners and collaborators, all with something to contribute to our goal of food justice for all.

 

And finally, a version of the speaker's bureau that was called for in the morning came into being that night as a few of FoodCorp's service members took the stage for FoodTalks -- stories about food, food systems and the difference our movement is making.

Jim Hightower's closing thought from the morning session was about perseverance. He pointed out that the founders of the suffrage movement did not live to see their goal achieved. Like growing good food, change takes time, but we live in a very different world than did the suffragists. #PoweringUp has already reached an audience far beyond Austin. If we keep using our chorus of savvy, inspiring voices, the change we seek will come, and soon.

Conference recap: Connecting the farm to cafeteria movement

NFSN Staff Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The National Farm to Cafeteria Conference began officially on Wednesday morning with a performance by the Great Promise for American Indians Drumming Group.

Then Anupima Joshi, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the National Farm to School Network welcomed the packed room, reflecting on the incredible progress the movement has made.  Our movement has benefited more than 21 million kids - and counting.

 

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Jim Hightower the former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture was next on stage with a hilarious and inspiring speech.  He acknowledged the assembled crowd for their incredible achievements and challenged them to keep up the good work, and to be sure to take their efforts to policy makers across the country.

 

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The next speakers presented on the farm to cafeteria movement in preschools, in hospitals, in colleges and even in neighboring countries.  The conversation in the room was also broadcast on social media through an small army of social media amplifiers, all using the hashtag #PoweringUp.

After lunch, the group broke into a series of small sessions on a wide range of topics.  The opportunity to come together, to learn together, and to plan together for the next steps for programs across the country created a buzz that reverberated thought the halls as people connected with each other.  They shared stories and ideas, reported successes and challenges, and were inspired to persevere and raise the bar as they look to the year ahead.

As the evening came, an impromptu parade spilled out of the hotel and moved westward through the heart of Austin toward one of its most prominent landmarks, the flagship Whole Foods Market.  It was there, on the roof, that the connecting and collaborating continued as the sun disappeared.  

During his speech that morning, Jim Hightower quipped about a hardware store that was known for its customer service.  He joked that their motto was "Together, we can do it yourself".  In our movement, it is often the dedication of a committed individual that sparks change.  It can sometimes be lonely, but after today, the people #PoweringUp in Austin are clear about at least one thing: They are not alone.

 

Conference recap: Farm to cafeteria in Austin

NFSN Staff Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The National Farm to School Network is hosting the 2014 National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Austin, Texas and on Tuesday, April 15th, hundreds of leaders in the farm to cafeteria movement fanned out across the city to learn about all of the incredible work that has transformed Austin over the past decade.

One of the field trips explored how partnerships build community food system power.

Farm to School in Austin 

The group traveled by bus to the first of four stops on the field trip: Dell Children's Medical Center.  Kristi Katz Gordy, Sr. Director of Development, lead one of the groups on a tour of the LEED Platinum building and the extensive gardens and grounds.  One interesting fact is that Dell Children's was built on the site of the old Austin airport, and 47 tons of concrete from the old runways was reclaimed and re-purposed for the building.

 

Rusty Lynch is the chef for Dell Children's and he was ready for the visitors with delicious tomato mozzarella, basil, pesto skewers.  Rusty partners with local farms like Green Gate Farms, Boggy Creek Farm, and Johnson's Backyard Garden to source 30 - 60% of his produce depending on the season.  Once each quarter, he turns his cafeteria into a farmers' market where he sells produce to patients and their families at cost.

When asked why he places such a priority on partnering with local farmers, Rusty quickly cites a number of sustainability and economic benefits, but adds a quip about freshness too: "The food just tastes better".  He also mentions that contrary to popular belief, the local produce doesn't necessarily cost more: "The chicken and eggs are the same price".

 

Walking away from the cafeteria, the group was impressed, but also struck by Rusty's attitude.  For him, this is not a big deal - it just makes sense.  As Brooke Gannon from Winooski, VT remarked: "Food is medicine". 

The visit concluded with a presentation from Dr. Stephen J. Pont discussing the connection between gardening, environmentalism and reducing childhood obesity. Dr. Pont will also be presenting on that topic at our conference later this week.

 

The next stop was Urban Roots, a youth development farm based on the model established by The Food Project in Boston.  Urban Roots operates a small 3.5 acre farm by hiring urban kids between the ages of 14 and 17 to do the farming with the guidance of a small staff lead by Max Elliott, who was on hand during the tour. 

 

Urban Roots partners with a number of local organizations to provide food for people in need.  Meals on Wheels and More is one such organization and Seanna Marceaux was also present to speak about the difference the partnership with Urban Roots makes for the roughly 2,000 home-bound people in Austin who depend on her services.

Max mentioned the importance of finding the right partner to receive the produce.  He said "It's hard to grow food in Central Texas, so we want to make sure that what we grow gets used well."

As the farm tour continued, Max said that he has the youth who work on the farm deliver produce personally to people in need.  He said that it establishes a deep connection between the food producer and the food consumer that helps the youth to persevere in the fields through the hot Austin summer - they know exactly why they are there.

As the tour ended, Max mentioned that there is an old saying that the best fertilizer is a farmer's footsteps.  He thanked the group saying that since we had come from all over the country and had walked through his farm, that we had done much to fertilize his fields and help his program.  That sentiment struck a chord.

Carly Chapel came to Austin from New Jersey, and Darlene Beach came from Ft. Apache Arizona and they found themselves engaged in conversation at Urban Roots.  There was a feeling among the attendees that by walking these fields, halls and paths together, this gathering was fertilizing ideas and connections that would help everyone to grow. 

 

A trip to Austin would not be complete without connecting with the University of Texas.  It was time for lunch and Steve Barke, the Chef for Kinsgiving Dining, gave the group a quick run-down of UT's gardens and its inspiring commitment to composting before inviting us to enjoy everything his dining hall had to offer.

Steve and the UT Dining Services crew even prepared a special dish with greens from the garden.  Couscous and red quinoa with a refreshing mixture of herbs.  Steve said "As a chef, one of the best tools to have on hand is a garden."

 Next, it was off to UT Elementary (home of the Little Longhorns) where Bob Knipe and chef Mario told the story of how this demonstration school came to be a leader in the Farm to School movement. 

"There was a conflict between what was being taught [in nutrition] and what was being served," Bob said. To address the problem, the school stopped looking at incremental changes and dreamed big.  Through dozens of partnerships and generous support from St. David's Foundation, the EduKitchen was born.  It is a tool to completely integrate diet and nutrition into the curriculum.  Parents were brought on board with the new menu by participating in 'Happy Kitchen' programs in the EduKitchen that changed how they saw themselves and put them in control of their diet and wellness.

UT Elementary has gardens as well, and procures as much local produce as they can.  In many ways, it is a model Farm to School Program, incorporating school gardens with local procurement, and a robust curriculum that takes full advantage of 'lunch time' as a great opportunity for additional learning during the school day.

With that, the field trip was over and the group returned to the hotel to share stories and learning with all of the other groups that had embarked on different, but similarly rich experiences in Austin.

 

The Sustainable Food Center, one of Austin's most notable local food organizations, and the local sponsor for the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, hosted a beautiful outdoor pig roast dinner to round out the day on Tuesday.  More learning, training and networking are ahead as the formal conference kicks off on Wednesday.

USDA accepting comments for local school wellness policies

NFSN Staff Friday, April 11, 2014

Once a bill is passed and signed into law, the next step in the policy process is implementation of the new law. There is an opportunity right now for you to shape the implementation of a policy that will impact the farm to school community! USDA is accepting comments through April 28, 2014 on its proposed rule for local school wellness policies

A few years ago, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (or HHFKA for short). Section 204 of HHFKA updates guidelines for local school wellness policies, which are required of schools receiving federal funds for school meal programs. The proposed rule simply means that USDA is proposing how it will implement the new law and is seeking public comments before the rule is finalized. Are you going to tell USDA what you think? If you’ve never submitted comments before, we are here to help! 

The first of many policy updates from the new NFSN blog

NFSN Staff Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Helen Dombalis, NFSN's policy and strategic partnerships director, offers a policy update at NFSN's 2013 annual meeting. Helen will be writing policy blog posts on a regular basis. 

With the launch of the National Farm to School’s Network new website comes an exciting new feature: our blog! Along with serving as a resource and networking hub for all aspects of farm to school, NFSN also serves as a policy advocate for the farm to school movement. Thus, our new blog will feature updates and information on what’s happening in Washington, DC and around the country. Check back regularly to learn about key opportunities to influence policies that impact you. If you’re involved in farm to school advocacy in your state or community, please share your farm to school story with us

In 2010, the National Farm to School Network and partner organizations advocated for federal funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program that now provides $5 million annually to support farm to school activities. This program is one of many examples of successful advocacy now benefitting the farm to school community. USDA is currently accepting applications for the program. The deadline to apply for a USDA Farm to School Grant is April 30, 2014. 

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