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.
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.