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FoodTalks: Stories of motivation and change from FoodCorps service members

NFSN Staff Thursday, June 12, 2014

FoodCorps, a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders that brings farm to school in 15 states around the country, convened in Austin, Texas in April as part of NFSN's National Farm to Cafeteria Conference. At the conference they shared FoodTalks, an evening of stories about farm to school in action. Seven service members and one alum speaker gave short, engrossing talks about what motivates them to serve, and how they know they are succeeding.

When Stephanie finished culinary school, the only career path she imagined was one in restaurants. After a year of FoodCorps service in Arizona with Tohono O'odham Community Action, she realized there were opportunities to do great and rewarding work in the world of school food. She also realized that school cooks are "rock stars. This is her story: 


FoodCorps will be adding more of the talks to their YouTube channel in the coming weeks. Subscribe to stay in the loop!

New USDA census results show 23.5 million kids participating in farm to school

Chelsey Simpson Wednesday, June 11, 2014

This week the USDA released the final results of the Farm to School Census, a first-of-its-kind effort to measure the amount and type of farm to school activity taking place across the country. Initial results were released last year, but the data now includes new or updated information from 1,500 school districts, resulting in an overall school district response rate of 75 percent. The data reflects farm to school activity during the 2011 - 2012 school year.

The new census data is also packaged in an updated website that offers a customized search tool, raw data downloads and infographics, all aimed at helping users find and share detailed information and local statistics. The survey results demonstrate that farm to school is taking root across America, impacting the health of kids and their communities:

  • 23.5 million kids are participating in farm to school activities
  • 40, 328 schools are using farm to school practices
  • $385+ million dollars were spent on local food for schools 

Since our network first took shape in 2007, we have encouraged the expansion of farm to school practices across the country by serving as a resource and information hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and preschools. We advocated for and informed the content of the census, and we applaud the USDA Farm to School Program for their great execution of this important piece of work. We are thrilled that farm to school is quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception and that we have the data to prove it! 

Local and regional food marketing funding available

NFSN Staff Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Editor's note: This post was written by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and originally appeared on their blog. The National Farm to School Network is a member of NSAC.

On Thursday, May 8, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) posted a Request for Applications (RFA) for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), a competitive grants program which provides a total of $30 million for a wide spectrum of direct-to-consumer and intermediated marketing projects to help grow economic opportunities and income for small and mid-sized family farmers, increase consumer choice and access to fresh and healthy food, and improve the economy in rural communities.

As an expanded version of the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), the FMLFPP recognizes the skyrocketing consumer demand for locally-grown food, one of the fastest growing sectors in American agriculture.  Yesterday’s release of the Request for Applications follows on the heels of an announcement by Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack of both the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and a change to the Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Local Food Enterprise Program.

FMLFPP and its predecessor program, FMPP, have been championed by NSAC for over a decade.  The scaling up of the program in the 2014 Farm Bill was part of the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) with a host of co-sponsors.

The fundamental goal of FMLFPP is to develop new marketing opportunities for farmers and ranchers.  Details on the RFA, which for this initial year of farm bill implementation, was divided into a Farmers Market Promotion Program RFA and a Local Food Promotion Program RFA, are available below.

The 2014 Farm Bill divides the funding for FMLFPP in halves.  Hence, under the request for applications released yesterday, $15 million is available in grants for direct-to-consumer outlets like farmers markets, community supported agriculture, pick your owns, agritourism, and other forms of direct marketing; another $15 million will be available in grants for local and regional food enterprises that are not direct farmer-to-consumer markets, including food hubs, food aggregators, food distributors, food wholesalers, food processors, and other value-added production enterprises, such as shared-use kitchen or kitchen incubator operations.

AMS has posted the two RFAs on their website, one for direct-to-consumer marketing projects and one for non-direct-to-consumer marketing projects.

Applications for both the “FMPP” and the “LFPP” portions of the program are due on June 20, 2014 via the www.grants.gov website.

Eligible Grant Recipients

For both direct marketing and local food projects, eligible entities are:

  • agricultural businesses;
  • agricultural cooperatives;
  • producer networks;
  • producer associations;
  • community supported agriculture (CSA) networks;
  • CSA associations;
  • local governments;
  • nonprofit corporations;
  • public benefit corporations;
  • economic development corporations;
  • regional farmers market authorities; and
  • tribal governments.

Priority Consideration

For both types of projects, USDA will give priority to projects that:

  • primarily serve low income/low food access (LI/LA) communities as defined by the USDA in its ERS Food Access Research Atlas map; or
  • involve Promise Zone Lead Applicant Organizations.

Please see RFA for detailed instructions on how to demonstrate the fulfillment of these categories.  At least 10 percent of the total funding will be reserved for projects from the LI/LA priority category.

Direct Marketing Specific Project Information

Direct Marketing – Eligibility

Projects funded must assist in the development, improvement, and expansion of domestic farmers markets, roadside stands, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, agritourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities.  Additionally, projects must demonstrate benefits to two or more farmers, producers, or farm vendors who produce and sell their own products through a common distribution channel directly to consumers.

Examples of eligible projects include:

  • market startup, operation, infrastructure;
  • farmer/rancher/manager training and education;
  • advertising/outreach;
  • market analysis and planning;
  • customer and producer surveys;
  • vendor and customer recruitment; and
  • new venue establishment.

Although eligible entities can submit more than one application for review, FMPP will award only one grant per eligible entity and project in a grant funding year.

Matching funds are not required.

Direct Marketing – Minimum and Maximum Award Amounts and Project Length

The minimum award is $15,000 and the maximum is $100,000.

The maximum duration for projects is 24 months and must begin no later than September 30, 2014 and end no later than September 29, 2016.

Direct Marketing – Staff Contacts at USDA

For questions about FMPP, please contact one of the following staff at USDA:

Mrs. Carmen Humphrey, FMPP Branch Chief; or

one of the FMPP Grants Management Specialists

  • Mrs. Lee Cliburn
  • Mr. Karl Hacker
  • Mr. Ricardo Krajewski
  • Mrs. Camia Lane
  • Mrs. Earlene Henderson-Samuels.

By email: USDAFMPPQuestions@ams.usda.gov or by phone: 202-720-0933.

Local Food Specific Project Information

Local Food – Eligibility and Match Requirements

Projects funded must be designed to assist in the development, improvement, and/or expansion of local and regional food business enterprises.  Local or regional food business enterprise are organizations or business entities that function as an intermediary between producers (farmers or growers) and buyers by carrying out one or more local or regional food supply chain activities such as aggregating, storing, processing, and/or distributing locally or regionally produced food products to meet local and regional market demand.

Local or regional food is defined as a food product that is raised, produced, aggregated, stored, processed, and distributed in the locality or region where the final product is marketed to consumers.  The total distance the product is transported must be within 400 miles from the origin of the product or, both the final market and the origin of the product must be within the same State, territory, or tribal land.

Examples of eligible projects include:

  • mid-tier value chains;
  • food hubs;
  • other food aggregators, processors, wholesalers, and distributors; and
  • other value-added production enterprises, such as shared-use kitchen or kitchen incubator operations.

Eligible entities are the same as for direct marketing projects (see above).

Although eligible applicants can submit more than one application for review, applicants are limited to only one grant in a grant-funding year.

A cash or in-kind match, in an amount equal to 25 percent of the total cost of the project, is required.

Local Food – Two Types of Grants

Two types of project applications: planning grants and implementation grants:

  • Planning grants are used in the planning stages of establishing or expanding a local and regional food business enterprise.  Activities can include market research, feasibility studies, and business planning.
  • Implementation grants are used to establish a new local and regional food business enterprise or to improve or expand an existing local or regional food business enterprise.  Activities can include training and technical assistance for the business enterprise and/or for producers working with the business enterprise, outreach and marketing to buyer and consumers; working capital, and non-construction infrastructure improvements to business enterprise facilities or information technology systems.

Local Food – Minimum and Maximum Award Amounts and Project Length

For planning grants the minimum award is $5,000 and maximum is $25,000.  The maximum duration for projects is 12 months and extensions may not exceed an additional 6 months.  Projects must begin no later than September 30, 2014 and end no later than September 29, 2015.  Planning grant recipients are eligible and encouraged to apply for implementation grants, after their planning grants are closed out and planning projects are completed.

For implementation grants the minimum award is $25,000 and maximum is $100,000.  The maximum duration for projects is 24 months and extensions may not exceed an additional 6 months.  Projects must begin no later than September 30, 2014 and end no later than September 29, 2016.

Local Food Staff Contacts at USDA

For questions about FMPP, please contact one of the following staff at USDA:

Nicole Nelson Miller, LFPP Program Manager; or

LFPP Grant Specialists — Velma Lakins, Samantha Schaffstall

By email: USDALFPPQuestions@ams.usda.gov or by phone: 202-720-2731.

Webinars for More Information

AMS will hold a webinar on the application process and eligibility for FMPP applicants on May 13, 2014 from 10:30 am-11:30 am EST.  The webinar will also be recorded and available for future use.   To join the FMPP webinar please register at this link: https://cc.readytalk.com/r/8vug7o4joctv&eom

AMS will hold a webinar on LFPP’s regulation, the application process, and eligibility on May 14, 2014 from 2pm-3:30pm EST.  The webinar will also be recorded and available for future use.  To join the LFPP webinar, please register at this link: https://cc.readytalk.com/cc/s/registrations/new?cid=cablorpc4umq

Profile: Desiree and Cal Wineland, American Butchers & Veterans Vineyard and Winery

NFSN Staff Thursday, May 01, 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 month. 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. 

Heading west

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Desiree and Calvin Wineland’s two young boys, Calvin and Austin, were in the Pentagon daycare center. They had arrived a week earlier because Desiree had been selected for an Army Congressional Fellowship. Both Desiree and Cal were helicopter pilots in the Army, but they never expected they would bring their kids anywhere near a battlefield. They all made it home safe that night, and while discussing the day’s events and the consequences that would surely follow, the Winelands made a solemn promise to their children that they would keep them out of harms way, and the middle of Nebraska, near where Cal's great-grandparents homesteaded, seemed like the place to do it. It would take a few years before they were able to retire and make their move.

 

Generations before, Cal’s family had made a similar journey, pushing west across the Great Plains, settling on the shores of the Republican River near Cambridge, Nebr., about 300 miles shy of the Rocky Mountains. It was here that Calvin, Desiree and their two kids would make a new life.

Once they had decided to move to Nebraska, Desiree began studying local history, trying to figure out what to do. She learned that early settlers planted grapes. The idea that they would be following in the steps of the pioneers appealed to them, and so did the idea of giving their friends a reason to visit rural Nebraska. But first, they needed to figure out how to grow grapes and make wine.

Wine making and grape growing involves a surprising amount of chemistry. Desiree commuted to Denver every weekend for a year to get certified through the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) and became involved with the American Chemical Society. As they learned more, they expanded their vision for the vineyard to include using it as a field lab for students. With approval from the local school district, they started teaching kids how to grow grapes, taking them through the process from soil samples through BRIX testing. 

Another new venture

It takes grape vines 3-5 years to produce fruit after they are planted, so once the work of choosing the right grapes and establishing the vines was done, the Winelands needed another projects to keep them busy. While they now knew a lot about viticulture, all of their new friends were mostly interested in cattle, a topic Desiree knew nothing about. Their interest grew, however, and soon the Winelands enrolled in the University of Nebraska to become certified in all things beef.

 

As the Winelands learned more about agriculture and the dwindling incomes farmers face, they started to think of ways they could cut out the middle-men so that farmers could keep more of their own profits. Farm to school programs emerged as a great solution for produce, but because all meat processing is centralized, there were logistical hurdles to selling local beef to local schools. 

 

Having hit a dead end, the Winelands needed a sign. A few nights later, they got one. A local preacher, Bill Weaver, came to the door of their farmhouse. He said that if they wanted to create jobs and support agriculture, he had a great opportunity. He started describing a facility that needed new management. It was a "locker," he told them. The only problem was that if this "locker" wasn’t part of a locker room at a gym, then Desiree had no idea what it was.

 

The following Monday, the Winelands travelled to the neighboring town of Beaver City to get their first look at the locker. It was a meat locker, and it was in a state of disrepair. 

In the military, officers are constantly put into situations where they are totally unfamiliar with their surroundings. They are trained to learn quickly and rely on the expertise of people around them. Where many people would have walked away, the Winelands used their training to assess the situation, quickly realizing that the locker was the key to processing meat for local farmers and delivering it to local schools. They decided to set up shop, and American Butchers was established in April 2011.

 

A community focus

Instead of focusing on scale, they focused on the relationship they had with farmers. They established a set price for farmers to use the locker and encouraged farmers to sell their beef for whatever they could get, keeping the difference. That stood in stark contrast to the big corporate operations that buy cattle for rock bottom prices and churn out as much beef as they can, as quickly as possible. 

In communities like Cambridge, Nebr., trust trumps money. Cal and Desiree set out to earn the trust of local farmers and ranchers by cleaning up their facility and establishing high standards. They also started working with schools, donating organs to biology classes and engaging with FFA and 4-H groups. They are currently working on a new program through which show animals raised by 4-H and FFA students will be purchased by local business leaders, processed, then sold to schools at a discount. Posters on the cafeteria wall will advertise the student's hard work: "Now serving Amelia's pork.

 

The Winelands have learned that there are many ways to start a farm to school program and many potential leaders. Sometimes the change-maker is the superintendent, sometimes it's the nutrition director, and sometimes it's the passionate owner of a meat locker.

 

We are showing kids how they can build businesses and how their English and business teachers can help them build business plans while their math teachers are helping with the finances," Desiree says. "There are setbacks and delays, but like plants or anything that grows, it takes a lot of elements working together. And it takes time.”

 

Through their efforts, the Winelands have won awards and have even been honored by the governor of Nebraska. But the highest honor they have received is the respect of the farmers and ranchers in their community. Desiree knew she had earned this respect on the day she received the simplest of invitations.

There's a table at Shirley K’s coffee shop in Cambridge where a group of farmers gather for coffee every day. Seats at this table are more coveted than seats on the city council. But recently, when Desiree dropped into Shirley K’s, one of the old men called her over and asked her to join them so they could hear about all about what she and Calvin had been up to. It’s hard to overstate this honor.

 

Meanwhile, the grapes that were planted in the spring of 2011 are growing. If all goes well, their first harvest will be in the summer of 2016. In the Army, Desiree would inspect her troops as they stood at attention to see how they were doing and to make sure they were mission-ready. Now she says that each one of the vines is like a formation of soldiers. She inspects them as she walks the fields – from top to bottom – correcting anything that is out of order.

 

After a career in the military where she always had a mission to accomplish, Desiree says she spent her first years in Nebraska searching for her next mission. "When I arrived, I was lost," she said. "But through agriculture I found a mission and my purpose. Agriculture saved me.”

Farm to school in the news

SimpleFlame.com Admin Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Preschool teacher honored in Virginia 

Today is Farming in the City Day in Harrisonburg, Virginia, an annual celebration started by preschool teacher Lauren Arbogast (pictured above), who also has the honor of being this year's Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year in Virginia.

Arbogast teaches preschool at W. H. Keister Elementary School in Harrisonburg and integrates agriculture into not only her own classroom but also the entire school. [….] She and her husband, Brian, and their two sons, Brandon and Jackson, live on a multi-generational farm where they produce beef, poultry and crops. She blogs about her life on the farm at paintthetownag.com.


USDA pilots new farm to school programs 

On Civil Eats, National Farm to School Network policy director Helen Dombalis weighed in on how the new Farm Bill supports farm to school through a new pilot program: 

Starting next school year, these programs would provide local fruit and vegetables for at least five, and up to eight, pilot schools across the country, with at least one state in each of the five main regions of the country (the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, the South, the West, and the Midwest). (The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is expected to release a Request for Proposals (RFP) in the coming months.) 

Along with school gardens and food systems education, the National Farm to School Network’s (NFSN) Policy and Strategic Partnerships Director Helen Dombalis says “local procurement is the third key piece of farm-to-school.” NFSN advocated for the pilots along with National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and Dombalis sees them as an important start. 

Profile: Miguel Villarreal, Novato Unified School District

NFSN Staff Wednesday, April 23, 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.


Working for pint-size athletes 

At 5 years old, Miguel Villarreal hated beets. He was born into a family of migrant farm workers, and his disdain for the vegetable stemmed from hoeing them. 

Education was serious business in Miguel’s family. Though his mom stopped going to school after the 6th grade, she told all of her kids: “you are going to college.” They studied hard during the school year, but in the summers they were all back in the fields. They learned what hard work was, and from a young age, Miguel knew he did not want to work in the fields any longer than he had to.

After graduating from high school, Miguel did go to college where he studied to be a nutritionist. He wanted to work with professional athletes, but when he saw a job posting for a school nutritionist, he thought he’d apply. He got the job and has been in that field ever since. Miguel quips that while he did not did not follow his passion of being a nutritionist for professional athletes, he works for pint-size athletes instead.

Miguel’s career began in a Dallas school where the schedule left him enough free time in the evening to earn a masters degree. But he really liked the work he was doing, so he started applying for food service director positions. He was thrilled to find a job in Victoria, Texas where he would serve 12,000 kids.  After three years, he moved to Plano, Texas and served 20,000 kids. During the six years he was there, the district ballooned to 45,000 kids.

Miguel’s heart and passion have always been in nutrition, but his 20-year career in Texas left him unfulfilled. 

“I was focused on managing the bottom line and not the students’ waist lines,” he says.  “We were being asked to generate revenue by super sizing, selling soda and any junk food the kids would buy to bring in money.”

He'd had enough and quit.

Miguel moved to California and got a job selling software to schools. That company had to downsize during the recession, and he found himself unemployed. He eventually found a new job as school food manager for Novato School District in California. At first, he was less than enthused about his new position. “I was in a smaller office, in a smaller district and I said ‘man, I’m moving backwards.’ But after having a pity party for a couple days, I chose to accept my new reality,” he says.  


Ready for change in California

Miguel looked around and saw he was in Marin county. He saw that there were a lot of farmers and that people generally really cared about their health and that they were active ... or so he thought. He happened to attend a meeting at which the Health and Human Services Department of Marin County presented the statistics on childhood obesity. What he learned was that 35 percent of students in his district were overweight. “I heard her say it, and I saw it in the graph, and it blew my whole image of California,” he says. “We've got a problem.”  

Back at the office, Miguel looked at the menu and went line by line to examine what they were selling. The first thing he saw that didn't make any sense was soda. So he got rid of soda.

Getting rid of soda also meant getting rid of a $70,000 annual revenue stream for the district. He told his business manager that he would find a way to make up the difference. At the time, only 200 of 1,600 potential free-or-reduced lunch students were eating breakfast. Since the government pays for each meal eaten by students who qualify for the program, increasing the number of students eating breakfast at school would serve a dual purpose: It would help to make sure they got a good, nutritious breakfast, and it would generate new revenue.

Miguel’s strategy was to make breakfast part of the school day. He persuaded the administration to create a nutrition break after the first class ended around 9 a.m. They went from 200 to 1,200 students eating breakfast each day, creating more than $70,000 in new revenue and, more importantly, providing 1,000 more kids with a good breakfast. Soda was out, and breakfast was in.


Time to learn more and find partners 

After this success, Miguel decided that to take on other parts of the problem. He quickly realized that he needed to get out in the community and meet the other people who were involved in the system he was trying to change. He attended meetings, found books to read and became a sponge for information. As his understanding expanded, he felt he had an obligation and a responsibility to do something. Maya Angelou says "you do your best until you know better, and when you know better you do better." It became a personal mantra. 

Miguel also knew he couldn't do it alone. He spent 2003 and 2004 networking and finding coalitions. That led him to Marin Organic, a non-profit organization near his school district. The executive director at the time was Helga Hellberg. He taught Miguel that 20 percent of crops were being tilled under because of blemishes that would have made them unsalable in the market. At the same time Helga was looking for a way to use this extra produce, Miguel was looking for a way to buy food from local farms. It was a serendipitous match.  

They started a gleaning program. Once the perfect-looking produce had been harvested, students and their families would go through the fields for a second round of harvest to gather food that was perfect in every way except appearance. They established a distribution system that allowed food to be gleaned on Monday, delivered to schools on Tuesday and served on Wednesday. The program is still running today, but the deliveries are now sent to local food banks.

Miguel estimates that in his 20 years in Texas, he had met five teachers. Through a large number of lunch meetings (with food provided), he met every single teacher in the Novato district - all 400 of them - in his first few years in Marin County. As his coalitions grew, five different universities began to send interns to help out and learn what was going on.


From food service director to wellness director 

Miguel is now focused on transforming the role of a food service director into that of wellness director. He and his colleagues in other school districts influence so many areas of school and education – indeed, food service is about much more than food.

It was in Food Justice, a book co-authored by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi (executive director and co-founder of NFSN), that Miguel first learned about the 3 C’s of farm to school: cafeteria, classroom and community. The idea grew on Miguel, and now he uses it to explain what he does at work every day. Miguel’s concern for the environment, the health of his students, California’s water crisis and the overall carbon footprint of his operation are the things that drive him on. The less processed foods are and the more plant-based his meals are, the better they tend to be in each of his areas of concern.

This year, the superintendent and the community have asked Miguel to do what he has done in Novato for the rest of the schools in the county. That means 18 school districts are about to collaborate to recast the food service director as the wellness director.

Miguel emphasizes that none of this is the result of the efforts of one person, but he asserts that it only takes one person to get started. Miguel believes that there needs to be someone doing this work in every community in America. 

For people seeking to make changes in their school district, Miguel offers this advice: “Break the huge tasks down into smaller, manageable programs. Take this thing we call school lunch, and ask, ‘what one thing can I do today?’  Start. Even if it is at just one school. But do it well. Celebrate the success and do the next thing tomorrow.”

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.

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