By Helen Dombalis, Executive Director

There could not have been a more invigorating way to spend my first few days as National Farm to School Network’s (NFSN) new Executive Director than with mentors, colleagues, partners and collaborators at the Power of Procurement: Good Food for our Future summit. Hosted by the Center for Good Food Purchasing with the generous support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the summit brought together food systems leaders from across the country to strategize on advancing institutional procurement that supports “good food” economies - ones that are healthy, ecologically sound, socially responsible and humane. While I did some live tweeting in Chicago (find me at @helen_dombalis), I want to share additional thoughts from the summit in a longer form. My mind is bursting with inspiration, and I’m buzzing with new ideas for NFSN’s next phase - which we’ll need your help to make happen. Here are the big picture themes I’ve taken home and my thoughts for how NFSN will continue to leverage its role in this wider “good food” movement to maximize the power of procurement.  

Have a vision and set a direction.
Visioning makes all the difference in realizing change. This was a theme shared over and over during the summit. Linda Jo Doctor (W.K. Kellogg Foundation) offered that through the process of visioning, we build “an awareness of what’s not working…but it doesn’t get caught there.” Visioning allows us to identify a direction to move in to create change. At NFSN, we envision a nation in which farm to school programs are an essential component of strong and just local and regional food systems, ensuring the health of all school children, farms, environment, economy and communities. It’s a vision that we work towards every day with support from people like you. And as we’re developing our next Strategic Plan for 2020 and beyond, it continues to be our goal to turn this vision into reality.

Back up your vision with data.
Good data helps prove that our vision matters, and illustrates the need for others to join and invest in our work. At NFSN, we know this is true: data helps tell the story of the opportunities and impacts of farm to school. But in order to create the systems change we seek, we need to keep pushing for more proof of concept across the movement. For example, I’m dreaming of the day we can say with data: Invest $5 million in farm to school now, and in two decades, we’ll see billions in savings in healthcare costs. Anecdotally, this is something that we already know is true. As Gary Cohen (Health Care Without Harm) noted at the summit, “Our food system is bankrupting our healthcare system.” Let me know if you want to invest in my data dream.

Words matter.
We were convened by the Center for Good Food Purchasing to talk about “good food” procurement. As Marion Kalb (Jefferson County Public Health Department and Co-Founder of NFSN) pointed out, when a producer or distributor is approached about getting involved, what does the language of “good food” convey to them? This is similar to a question that our NFSN team has been pondering. Just as there are underlying values in the phrase “good food”, what are the underlying values in “farm to school”? We recognize that the words we use (as well as the words we don’t use) signal our values, and we have to be more intentional about making sure our words match our values. For example, NFSN’s equity commitment statement is not embedded in our mission statement and is less-than explicitly included in our core values. This is something I’m eager to change. NFSN is committed to equity. Our mission and core values must express this without reservation.

Programming matters, too.
Another big takeaway for me at this summit came from Ricardo Salvador (Union of Concerned Scientists and NFSN Advisory Board member). In his keynote, Ricardo used an example of how programming efforts can flounder if they don’t go as far as possible to acknowledge injustices and work to address them. NFSN’s Racial and Social Equity Assessment Tool for Farm to School Programs and Policy is a great way to check ourselves on maximizing impact to advance equity. For example, it’s one thing to kick off a meeting with a land acknowledgment, recognizing the traditional inhabitants of this place, who stewarded the land for generations before European contact and colonization. But the acknowledgment falls short if we don’t also tell the history of unjust structures and policies behind the land we meet on, such as the forced removal of Native peoples. (The policy was literally called the Indian Removal Act.) Janie Hipp (Native American Agriculture Fund) also reminded us that “we have to stop asking who’s missing and start inviting them to be here.” I’m committed to channeling these actions into future NFSN convenings. (Speaking of, save the date! We’ll be gathering in Albuquerque, NM, April 20-24, 2020.) Actions can speak louder than words, and that’s especially true in program design. As a movement builder, NFSN's actions serve as an important model for our state partners, and this extends into addressing racism and inequities in farm to school and the food system.

Investment spurs innovation.
Shifting the food system means shifting the spending. NFSN will continue working with schools and in early childhood settings to shift their purchasing power, but should also work with our partners at USDA to shift theirs. Envision with me: what could we accomplish if we embed good food values into the federal government’s commodity program purchases? As Haile Johnston (The Common Market and NFSN Advisory Board Vice Chair) challenged, “This is our money. So how do we hold decision-makers accountable [to spend that money in ways that] nourish our communities?” Here are a few more ideas: what if we regionalize USDA Foods so that school and other participating institutions aren’t just purchasing 100% American-grown, but 100% American-grown within their geographic region, from farms that support and invest in the land, the laborers and the local community? And, what if we leverage the public-private financial investment strategies of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to go a step further than just healthy food access, to ensuring that this healthy food is also “good food”? How can NFSN and the farm to school movement work with others in this space to shift the demand and change the food system together? This kind of big-picture, systems-change visioning is one of the ways that I’m excited to contribute and lead as NFSN’s Executive Director. Your investment in our work helps spur the innovation and action needed to make big change like this happen.

Vision → Action
Paula Daniels (Center for Good Food Purchasing) elevated the importance of putting vision into action by quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt: “To reach a port we must set sail. Sail, not tie at anchor. Sail, not drift...We’re all in this boat together, so let’s set sail.” This sentiment perfectly aligns with NFSN’s tagline - growing stronger together - and encapsulates why I’m excited about NFSN’s future. I may be at the helm of NFSN, but I honor and appreciate those who set the course (like our Co-Founder and former Executive Director Anupama Joshi) and those who are in this boat with me. It takes all of us! We’re serious about the “Network” part of our name. Get to know our incredible partners, advisors and staff, and if you haven’t already, join our network. I hope that you’ll hop on board and join us in this important work - your voice, perspective and support are needed here! Check out what we accomplished together in 2018 and stay engaged as we continue growing stronger together!