As we begin this new decade, we’re reflecting on National Farm to School Network’s journey to centering our work in equity and focusing our intentions towards justice. Below, learn about our efforts in 2019 to further our commitment to equity, and see what we’re planning for in 2020 here.
By Helen Dombalis, NFSN Executive Director
I do this work every day from a place of equity. The early years of my career were spent in direct service - first working with kids with developmental disabilities and then with adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses - without realizing my upbringing afforded me privileges that advantaged me and made it difficult to understand the realities of those I was attempting to serve. As my career focus shifted to making nutritious foods available to all people, I quickly learned that there’s more to the equation than want; everyone wants to live healthy, fulfilling lives, but there are intentionally inequitable and discriminatory systems and policies affecting access and ability to do so. People should not have to want for nutritious food; everyone has a right to food that nourishes them. So I shifted my focus to demand that right through advocacy and systems change. I remain grateful to the clients that inspired that shift. There was the client that took me to the grocery store with his SNAP dollars (then food stamps) at the start of the month; he held up a box of mac’n’cheese and an apple - both about $1 - and asked which I thought he would choose. (The mac’n’cheese of course; it’s more filling.) There was the client that took me to the food pantry and showed me that the foods I was teaching about in our cooking classes were far from the sugar- and salt-laden foods on the shelves.
As Executive Director of the National Farm to School Network (NFSN), I am honored and challenged to center our work in equity every day. Our food systems was built on injustices, and I cannot seek to change it without standing against those injustices. The work is urgent, because specific groups have been consistently impacted, and this has to stop now. There remain too many injustices in our food system and society.
In 2007, NFSN was founded with core values of local and just food and a vision of equality in the food system. But it was not until more recent years that we’ve come to strive for equity (not just equality), and that far more is required beyond acknowledging need. In our 2017-2019 Strategic Plan, we made intentional and practice-orientated goals for making our commitment to equity more than just talk; we worked to put equity “in action.” If we are to truly achieve our vision, nothing less than this will do.
We also recognize that we have a responsibility as a national movement building organization to have a broad and diverse reach, including over 20,000 members, 70,000 followers on social media, and more than 12.5 million people plugged into National Farm to School Month in October. We have significant reach, and great potential to drive justice-oriented work in the farm to school movement and beyond. We have an important role to play in inspiring more partner organizations - at the national, regional, state, community, and sovereign levels - to create equity-driven impact in their work. We certainly know that this is not a linear process; we work forwards, backwards, and sideways. And we know it will take all of us - as reflected in our tagline Growing Stronger Together - to make forward progress.
In this spirit, I want to share what National Farm to School Network did in 2019 to further our equity work. First, we’ve kept the conversations going. Prioritizing discussions about equity ensures we all continue our learning (because there’s always something new to learn) and make the time for the work. This is a journey. We used to notice how it was too easy to set aside our focus on equity for the day-to-day things that “had” to get done: grant deliverables, fundraising, and so on. But the truth is, equity work is the work that “has” to get done. So we make time for it. Thanks to inspiration from other organizations, a group of NFSN Partners and Staff led the creation of the NFSN Community Agreements for our Annual Meeting with Core and Supporting Partners this spring. We recently realized that those agreements are a good way to start not only our annual gatherings, but all meetings, so we’re now doing so for everything from staff and board meetings to meetings with our partners. Take a few minutes of meetings to make space to remind us why we’re here and how to come to the conversations with respect.
Our staff continued internal monthly calls dedicated to discussion for grounding our work in equity, and mid-year, we began rotating facilitation and topic identification between staff to ensure professional development opportunities for all. Topics for these calls ranged from how to embed equity into our 10th National National Farm to Cafeteria Conference (coming April 2020) program and communications, to reviewing the results of and discussing opportunities for growth stemming from our biannual organizational equity assessments. We also dedicated calls to approaching Native American Heritage Month as allies and adding land acknowledgement to our email signatures (which we now do), practicing removing deficit-based language in our communications, deciding about companies to take money from based on values alignment, integrating equity into research and evaluation, and reviewing our hiring processes with an equity lens. The two NFSN Staff teams also held weekly informal discussions about emerging equity issues and questions in our work and the world, and NFSN Advisory Board members participated in an equity enrichment activity at the in-person meeting.
To track that our discussions and idea sharing are being put into action, we use the aforementioned biannual organizational equity assessments and also an equity action plan dashboard, developed in conjunction with our 2017-2019 Strategic Plan. We’ve also developed a standard practice of using the NFSN Racial and Social Equity Assessment Tool for Farm to School Programs and Policy that we developed in 2018 to meaningfully advance equity in our advocacy and programming. For example, the legislative language in the Farm to School Act of 2019 was not a simple copy-paste from the 2017 and 2015 versions. Rather, our Policy Team conducted listening sessions and thoughtfully reviewed the language to better ensure that the USDA Farm to School Grant funding is prioritized for communities that have been systematically disadvantaged by the food system, often communities of color.
Integration of equity throughout the work of our organization also goes beyond programming and policy. I was reminded by my colleagues many times throughout the year that there’s always an “equity path” to take. This includes everything from the contractors and vendors we pay for services to the way our staff celebrate the holiday season. There are always opportunities to center our practices - no matter how small - in equity; sometimes, it just takes slowing down, talking to others, and thinking through what that path is and how to find it. Finally, recognizing demand from NFSN Partners to dig deeper into integrating this work into their own organizations and communities that we get in Annual Meetings and webinars, and with guidance from our equity consultant, we envisioned and then successfully fundraised for our first official equity program, the NFSN Equity Learning Lab. Stay tuned for more on this in 2020.
Thank you for being part of the farm to school movement and for the work you do in your communities every day to advocate for equity and justice through our food system. If you have not been part of this work, we welcome you as new partners in this work. If you are not already a member, please join us (it’s free) to stay up-to-date in 2020 for more regular news about our equity journey. And, if you’re inspired by reading this, we always welcome donations to support our continued equity journey. Happy holidays, and here’s to a bright and bold 2020 together!