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Collaboration with a Crunch

NFSN Staff Monday, October 27, 2014


Guest post by Vanessa Herald, University of Wisconsin, Madison - Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems

The University of Wisconsin, Madison - Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems serves as the Great Lakes Regional Lead for the National Farm to School Network. Each of our regional lead agencies will be contributing blog post during Farm to School Month. 

By this time in October, most farms and schools in our Great Lakes Region have experiences the first hard frost of the season, if not the first snowfall. We face the challenges of a short growing season every year, but that doesn’t stop local schools, community organizations, non-profits, state and local agencies from establishing incredible farm to school programs. As a region, what could we do to celebrate National Farm to School Month, encourage new schools to connect with local farms to feature a local food item and have fun? Our answer was the first Great Lakes Great Apple Crunch!

As a region, the six states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Indian boast farm to school programs in 6,664 schools, reaching over 3,347,008 students. Our regional apple producers grow at least 320 million pounds of apples for fresh eating. What better to connect our regional growers and students than to encourage everyone to bite into a regional apple at noon on Food Day, October 24! In Michigan alone, last year over 74,000 students and residents participated in the Michigan Apple Crunch sponsored by Cherry Capital Foods, a Michigan-based distributor that works directly and exclusively with farmers, growers and producers from their home state. 

The Great Lakes Great Apple Crunch was a bushel of success. Not only did schools and school districts across the region chomp into apples, so did other farm to school partners like the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and Ohio State University Extension The School Nutrition Association of Michigan even hosted an Apple Crunch Party at their annual conference. 

“The Crunch is a simple and flexible way to get schools excited about celebrating Wisconsin food. Sometimes people feel overwhelmed by how complex farm to school can look, and this is a simple way to celebrate it,” says Sarah Elliott, Wisconsin State Lead based at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. 


And celebrate they did, with over 100 schools participating in the Crunch. This was very apparent in the Janesville School District, which hosted a big Apple Crunch Celebration. Janesville School District is home to 10,000 students in Southern Wisconsin, and has committed to purchasing local foods for this school year. Janesville made the most of their Crunch during lunch period last Friday. A huge, hand-painted farm to school poster accompanied special guests Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel, Janesville School District Superintendent Dr. Karen Schulte, and Representative Amy Loudenbeck, along with hundreds of enthusiastic sixth grade students at Marshall Elementary School. 

At 11:45 they ceremoniously counted down and loudly crunched into local apples from Brightenwoods Orchard. Special guests Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel and Janesville School District Superintendent Dr. Karen Schulte joined the sixth grade class at Marshall Elementary School to ceremoniously count down and crunch into local apples from Brightenwoods Orchard. The event was a celebration of local foods, local farmers and the benefits of fruits and vegetables. Simultaneously, all students in the district were served the same local apples for lunch, along with an October menu full of local food items.

Jim Degan, School Nutrition Manager for Janesville, began planning for the event in September. “Farm to school takes a lot of partnerships and commitment. The goal of the Apple Crunch is to generate some awareness of our farm to school efforts, and the partnerships that make it work.” Degan sees farm to school as a value to local farmers, the local community and students. “The quality and taste of local products is fantastic. You don’t get that taste anywhere else. Sometimes it can be hard to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables, so the good quality and colors of the local products really helps.” This was evident at the Apple Crunch, as student enthusiastically, and loudly, showed their approval for these local apples.

“Folks all across the state are very excited about the Crunch, in part because it’s a collective activity that brings us all together. People felt like they were part of something bigger than just what’s happening in their own school,” commented Elliott. And as students, teachers and community members from across the region bit into their delicious apples last week, we all felt the enthusiasm generated by the simple act of crunching into a local apple.

 

Beets Galore: The Full Circle of Farm to School

NFSN Staff Saturday, October 18, 2014

Guest post by Nicki Jimenez, FoodCorps Fellow


FoodCorps Fellow Nicki Jimenez. 

Last February, as a FoodCorps service member in Montana, I guided a healthy, local product all the way from the farm into classrooms on a large scale. It all started with a perfect storm of beets: local Montana growers had an abundance of them and I knew that they were a great vegetable to use for Valentine’s Day lessons with students.

As the FoodCorps service member at Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (MMFEC) in Ronan, Montana, I was in a unique position. MMEC is a fully inspected and certified community-based food processing center, so I was extremely well situated to carry out FoodCorps’ mission of connecting kids to real food.  They’re positioned between the Western Montana Growers Cooperative (WMGC) and some of the biggest and most committed K-12 buyers of local food in Montana. Not only do they have the equipment to process fresh fruits and vegetables, they have staff members who are knowledgeable and experienced in food safety and product development.

Over the winter, I leveraged our processing staff’s expertise to develop new beet products—different cuts, frozen raw cubes, and roasted cubes. In early February, I rallied orders for beets from eight school districts in WMGC’s distribution area. FoodCorps members in other districts bought boxes to use in the classroom or cafeteria. Nearby districts bought roasted beet cubes to serve as a cooked Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) snack. WMGC dropped off 775 pounds of local beets, MMFEC processed them, and WMGC distributed to the schools.

Five of the eight districts that received deliveries are small, rural communities with populations under 5,000; three have under 2,000. But thanks to enthusiastic large buyers like Jenny Montague, the Food Service Director in Kalispell, and bold small-district buyers like JB Capdeville, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Coordinator in Polson, we fulfilled small orders. Without pooling orders to achieve volume, it is economically infeasible for WMGC  to distribute or MMFEC to process the local produce. Coordination is essential to creating access to healthy, local foods for small, rural schools in Montana.

Many times, my involvement with helping schools procure local product ended here: in the school kitchen. This time, though, I took a couple more steps to bring students a deeper experience with the local food in their classrooms. Working with champion teachers in each grade at the elementary school, I scheduled beet lessons with eleven classes. A local farmer—Nicole Jarvis of Ploughshare Farm—visited each class with me. Her four year-old daughter passed around beet seeds for students to examine as we discussed how beets grow. Nicole even led the fourth graders in some beet math, asking them to calculate how much space on her farm it took to grow the beets for their class—and their school!

Beets were a (potentially scary) new vegetable for most of the students, so we first made sure everyone understood the “don’t yuck my yum” principle and then promised a fun sticker to whoever tried at least two bites of beets. Every student raised his or her hand, holding a beet cube high into the air, and cha-cha-cha-ed, “we love remolacha!” (that’s “beet” in Spanish) then bit into the roasted purple vegetable. Pretty much everyone joined the Two Bite Club that day, and there were many rave reviews.

The farmer grew the beets. The farmer came to the classroom to eat the beets she grew with students. And I got to orchestrate all the steps in between. This is what it means to be a FoodCorps member at MMFEC: facilitating the full circle of farm to school.

Nicki was a FoodCorps service member in Ronan, MT for two year, and is now the FoodCorps fellow in Arizona.

Feeding and Teaching the Next Generation

NFSN Staff Thursday, October 16, 2014

Guest post by Wendy Allen, Organic Valley


Susan Hardy helps a PS41 student grind corn the old fashioned way. (Photo courtesy Organic Valley) 

We at Organic Valley have always believed that farm to school programs are vital to the health of our children as well as to our communities. Farm to school lets students learn creatively, physically, personally. It’s hands-on and fun, and these two qualities almost always guarantee a great learning experience for kids and adults. And it’s even better when the experiences also support local family farms and economies. Here are the stories of two schools (and two farmers) who are making a difference: 

The Harvest Challenge

Organic Valley is a cooperative of member-farms located all across the country, and many of the communities in which our farmers live also have farm to school programs. One program located near our headquarters in southwestern Wisconsin is Vernon County Farm to School. Even though this is a rural area, many of the students here had never seen, let alone grown, vegetables like garlic and eggplant. Vernon County Farm to School also organizes an after-school gardening opportunity, teaches nutrition education, runs a Harvest of the Month program, and—
the highlight of the year—hosts a Harvest Challenge.

Created as a fundraiser for Vernon County Farm to School, the Harvest Challenge matches teams of high school students with school staff mentors and local chef mentors. The teams and their mentors must create recipes that use local, seasonal foods; cost less than $1 per serving; and meet all school nutrition requirements. Oh, and of course the recipes have to taste good, too! If the recipes meet all the requirements, then they can be used in the Vernon County Schools’ lunch menus.

After the judging—which rates the recipes on presentation, use of local food, knowledge of school nutrition requirements, taste and aesthetics—the teams are then truly put to the test: They prepare their recipe for about 300 community members, who then vote on their favorites.

“We are really able to reach out to the high school students in our county with the Harvest Challenge,” says Ashlee Gabrielson, outreach coordinator for Vernon County Farm to School. “They are not only able to connect with a staff member but also a local chef who has volunteered to help their team out. This really connects our communities to our schools and gives them support. Also, students really learn an appreciation for their food service staff and how challenging and how much work it is to make these meals on a budget and at the quantity they make them.”

Susan Hardy and her husband, David, walk the pastures of their organic family farm in New York State. (Photo by David Nevala for Organic Valley) 

Farmers visit the big city

Many Organic Valley farmers enjoy visiting local schools to talk about organic farming with the students. David and Susan Hardy and Maureen Knapp, organic farmers in New York State, travel into New York City to visit Public School 41 (PS41) a couple times a year. Coming with them to the classroom are jars of organic cream that will be shaken into butter by little hands and sometimes the peeping of fluffy chicks, which the kids hold in their hands with wide-eyed wonder. These visits connect students to farm life and give them food and farm experiences they would never get otherwise. Our farmers may be too humble to brag, but these personal visits make such an impact on young minds. We are proud to brag on their behalf.


We believe family farming is the key to healthy food systems, healthy communities and healthy children. Not only are organic family farmers growing food for us, but they are being good stewards of the land by reducing their impact on it and passing on important knowledge to our children, who most certainly will be the next generation of responsible, conscious eaters, and who just might be the next generation of farmers to care for the land that feeds us all. 

Farm to School taking root in Indian Country

NFSN Staff Monday, October 13, 2014

Guest post by Alena Paisano, Farm to Table New Mexico

Farm to Table New Mexico serves as the Southwest Regional Lead Agency for the National Farm to School Network. Each of our regional lead agencies will be contributing blog posts during Farm to School Month. 


Randy Chatto 

Randy Chatto from the community of Ramah, New Mexico has been working with a team of community members on the “Empowering Ramah Navajos to Eat Healthy” project (ERNEH) for more than two years. This project, funded by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is the first step in developing a community-wide effort to grow fresh food for community families and the school.

The goal of the ERNEH project is to provide fresh and locally grown food for community families and for students and staff with the K-12 Pine Hill School. The food that is being brought to the school and used in meals and celebrations are traditional Navajo foods such as Navajo gray Hubbard squash, Navajo yellow corn, and blue corn. There are now over 50 family gardens spread across the community that provide local, fresh and traditional healthy foods.  

Randy has undoubtedly been a leader in the project: He designed the small grow boxes that use gravity-fed irrigation systems, went door-to-door to get people on board,  and even supports each individual garden with education and training. Randy is also working with external partners such as the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) to share best practices with other Native groups and help build project sustainability. He attended the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference this past April as a participant in NFSN's Native Nations convening and will continue to work with regional partners throughout this year.

The Ramah Navajo community is a very isolated, rural, desert-like community that lacks sufficient good growing soil and adequate precipitation to easily grow fresh vegetables and fruits. Another challenge Randy sees is that folks have had to learn how to garden again, as they used to, instead of relying solely on retail markets that are 50-60 miles away.

At its core, ERNEH is about community transformation - working with young children, families and elders to revitalize a local and traditional food system for the Ramah Navajo people. 

AN INTERVIEW WITH MR. RANDY CHATTO (2012)

What’s your favorite thing about being involved in your traditional foods project?      
Being a part of history: “Traditional foods” is probably one of the most important elements in any Native American/Alaskan Native’s culture. In that culture there is someone keeping that practice moving forward, keeping it alive through sowing, hunting, gathering, reaping and harvesting. You are a key component to keeping your land and your people healthy, informed, encouraged and appreciated. I feel very fortunate and blessed to know that I, in some way, am helping my people.

How has this project impacted your community?  
Many of our community members are excited to take part in a program that encourages them to plant, harvest and prepare their own traditional plant foods. Many of our families and even departments within our organization are beginning to eat healthy as they are seeing and realizing the significance of the re-introduction of family gardens, community gardens and dry land farming.   

What are your plans to sustain this project?  
This project is not a temporary spark for this community but a lifestyle deeply rooted in our Diné culture. We must continue this effort to eat healthy and keep moving. We must all lend a hand and be part of a voice in keeping our people healthy. We are our own resource, and we need to continue to tap into it. The spirit of self sufficiency has always been with us but we have to carry on that community action. It’s about raising champions in every facet of our peoples’ lives: in body, in mind and in spirit!    

Central hubs bring farms and schools together

NFSN Staff Thursday, October 09, 2014

Guest post by Will Gray, Wallace Center at Winrock International


No farm to institution relationship offers more positive benefit for local communities than farm to school. Changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and preschools enriches the connection communities have with fresh, healthy food and fosters a critical understanding and appreciation of agriculture among the next generation. I imagine this comes as a surprise to none of us – the National Farm to School Network has been pioneering initiatives since 2007 – but with the emergence of the childhood obesity epidemic over the last decade, it seems that fundamentally reshaping the American diet has never been more critical.

And the will to change the way our children eat is strong. Farm to school systems are evolving throughout the country, with some 44 percent of US schools serving regionally-produced vegetables to almost 24 million students. Both government and private funding opportunities continue to emerge as more states, foundations and interest groups step up and pledge support. However, in such a quickly-changing landscape, new challenges emerge alongside successes. One such challenge is the growing need for regional food system infrastructure that can support expansion in farm to school supply chains.

Farm to school relationships are complex, to say the least. Farmers work to plan production in order to meet the consistency and quantity requirements of a larger buyer, while school foodservice employees manage multiple deliveries and vendor relationships while prepping and serving meals. State and national regulatory requirements must be met; food safety certifications secured and audited; processing needs identified; education and outreach initiatives established. All the while, the bottom line looms, as market forces and budget constraints apply pressure at both ends of a seemingly impossible task: supporting the development of both farmer and student simultaneously. 

For many farmers, and for many schools, the pressures are too much to handle without support. What’s missing is a central hub – a values-driven, mission-oriented organization providing many of the services historically offered by conventional broad-line distribution companies or foodservice suppliers. These regional food hubs – over 300 nationwide, with more organizing each year – actively manage the aggregation, distribution and sale of source-identified food products from local and regional producers, increasing each partner farm’s capacity to access and satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.

Food hubs are as diverse as the producers and the markets they serve. Some are for-profit, some non-profit, some are lean start-ups, while others are well-established and have operated for years. Some provide processing and value-adding services, food safety training and certification, and marketing and branding services, while others simply aggregate and distribute. While size, services, and legal status vary according to regional need and organizational vision, a few defining characteristics emerge across the industry, most notably a triple bottom line commitment to positive economic, social and environmental impacts within their respective communities and a focus on increased food access, equity and community development.  

Food hubs play a valuable role in the farm to school supply chain – perhaps a critical role, as further development of farm to school initiatives creates more and more need for local food consistency, quality control, food safety assurance, and school-friendly processing. With a diverse population of farmers, academics, politicians, and business entrepreneurs dedicating themselves to the common goal of food system improvement, the Wallace Center is working to link together local activities into regional initiatives and finally into national impact. By building partnerships with support organizations like the National Farm to School Network and School Food Focus, government agencies like the USDA, universities and extension agencies, and for- and non-profit producers, food hubs and other Good Food businesses around the country, Wallace Center is able to provide research, technical assistance, and other support initiatives to hundreds of organizations and thousands of producers across the United States.

As farm to school continues to expand, building on years of tireless advocacy, organization and on-the-ground implementation, Wallace Center will continue to capture and communicate the challenges, successes, and lessons learned along the way. Our own hub, The National Good Food Network, is a hub of information where we aggregate, distribute and market best practices, business development tools, case studies and industry benchmarks from our own research and that of partner organizations all over the country. As a hub, we too strive to provide the strong infrastructure necessary to support Good Food expansion. Through collaboration and communication, we build the capacity of our partners in pursuit of our common goal: feeding better food to more people.


The Wallace Center at Winrock International facilitates regional, collaborative efforts to move Good Food – healthy, green, fair, affordable food – beyond direct-marketing and into wholesale markets to expand the impact of regional food systems. We believe this work increases the viability of small and medium-scale growers, adds economic vitality to both rural and urban areas, and reaches families in their schools, communities, and homes.

Kids Find a Chef in their Garden, Learn to Pickle Beets – And Love It!

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Guest post by Dean Zatkowsky, Orfalea Foundation

Outdoor learning, fresh produce, and happy kids.

This past school year, Orfalea Foundation Chef Instructor Janet Stevenson and Explore Ecology Environmental Educator Maggie Iba offered a Chef in the Garden session at Aliso Elementary School in Carpinteria, California. The Orfalea Foundation’s School Food Initiative installed or enhanced 35 school gardens throughout Santa Barbara County in an effort to connect children with how food is grown and encourage them to accept healthy food choices. The same Chef Instructors who empower food service personnel at Culinary Boot Camp visit each garden twice per school year to share their knowledge of seasonality, cooking tips and their conviction that healthy food can taste great.

In this Chef in the Garden session, children learned about food systems and the way food is grown, processed, transported, retailed and consumed. They also harvested beets from their school garden and watched with fascination as Janet and Maggie showed them how to pickle the beets they had just pulled out of the ground.

Students harvest beets under the supervision of Environmental Educator Maggie Iba.

Here’s what most impressed this visitor at the event: When the children were allowed to sample pickled beets, they jumped at the chance and even asked for seconds. Now, I don’t know about you, but I was a picky eater as a kid, and even the words “pickled beets” would have grossed me out. But, Janet and Maggie did such a great job showing the kids how to make a delicious snack from a plant growing in their own garden that the kids were enthralled and enthusiastic.

Participation – and the example set by adults around them – makes a big difference in a child’s receptivity to new foods. The Chef in the Garden program involves the kids and demystifies where real food comes from, opening their minds – and palates – to new food experiences. There are many good reasons to build gardens in schools and yards, but helping children make healthier food choices throughout their lives is at the top of my list. And if any of you are picky-eater adults, remember to set a good example by trying new foods with your kids.

The Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative Chef in the Garden curriculum is available here.

Students investigate the pickling ingredients.


In celebration of farmers

NFSN Staff Friday, October 03, 2014

Guest post by Kathie Starkweather, Center for Rural Affairs
Center for Rural Affairs and the National Center for Appropriate Technology serve as the Midwest Regional Lead Agency for the National Farm to School Network. Each of our regional lead agencies will be contributing blog posts during Farm to School Month. 

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Farm to School Month than to honor the reason farm to school exists: Farmers.

Anybody out there who has tried to grow food in a pot, a small garden, vertically, horizontally … you name it, you know what a challenge it can be. Pests gravitate to your lovely plants. Weather conditions are rarely perfect: too much heat, too much rain, not enough rain, not enough heat…. Growing food isn’t easy. 

So what gets you through all of trials and frustrations? Love and enjoyment for what you are doing. The sense of accomplishment you feel as you see your plants grow, flower and produce. The amazing taste and color of the foods you’ve toiled over. Providing for your family. 

Most of us raise food as a hobby. If we have a hailstorm or a drought, we are disappointed and frustrated, but it doesn’t impact our income or our family very much. You might miss out on the pleasure of eating fresh peas right off the vine, but if you have a farmers’ market in your area, you can find a farmer who is selling them.

Take that love of growing things and eating good food and all those challenges and risks, multiply them many times, and you have a farmer. I want to tell you about three farmers I know and why they do what they do: 

Darlin' Reds Farm

I know two young women who started a small vegetable farm called Darlin' Reds. They both have off-farm jobs, as many farmers and farm families do in order to get by. And while they are fortunate to do work they enjoy in their off-farm jobs, their true passion is growing food and providing it to people like you and me. 

They want children, some of whom have never tasted a fresh vegetable, to eat their tasty squash, peppers and carrots. They want kids to know where their food comes from and that the veggies on their lunch tray come with a whole lot of blood, sweat, tears and love. 

So they toil in 110-degree weather, making sure their plants are okay. Since they farm organically, they pull weeds instead of spraying them. They invest in their farm by adding season-extending hoop houses so they can provide schools with a few more months of fresh vegetables.

It’s hard work, but they think it is worth it if just one more child can experience the taste of a fresh green bean or learn that asparagus tastes pretty darned good. 

Prairie Pride Poultry

A young farmer-veteran I know named Dan raises chickens and sells eggs. He first connected to the land through his grandparent’s farm. Prairie Pride Poultry was started about a year and a half ago, and today has over 500 chickens. Visit his farm and you’ll find those 500 chickens clucking through greening grass and clambering for bugs. With over 450 eggs collected every day, he is pleased and expanding his markets. In the fall of 2013, Dan sought out the food service director at York Public Schools, which is close to his farm. As both of them tell the story, a mutually beneficial relationship began.

The food service director recognized that pasture-raised birds produce healthier eggs. Providing the best food to students was important to her. It has become a great partnership, not only for the students and Dan but also for the teachers and office staff who are now buying eggs from Prairie Pride Poultry.

I write this blog post to celebrate farmers and thank them for what they do. Without them we would have no farm to school program, and we would have no access to fresh, healthy food. 

See if you can find a farmer and thank him or her today in honor of National Farm to School Month. And next time there is a 110-degree day or a month-long drought, remember how lucky you are that somebody is out there, growing food for you and making sure our kids have the best possible food on their cafeteria trays. 

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.”

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