By Molly Schintler, Communications Intern
Since farm to school celebrates local food, farmers, communities and traditions, it looks different in every community. So an important question for our work is, “what do culturally relevant and traditional foods look like in our schools?” Food service directors, garden educators and school administration should ask, ‘Is this food culturally relevant to my students?’ in the same way that they ask, ‘Is this food grown locally?’. The following are two stories of farm to school champions that recognize the importance of structuring farm to school activities to reflect their communities’ food cultures.
In the capitol of Iowa’s heartland, Executive Chef Chad Taylor has been working in the Des Moines Public Schools for over 20 years. The DMPS district serves 63 locations and an average of 34,000 students daily. While the district has worked with farm to school initiatives through state funded nutrition education programs, FoodCorps, and a USDA Farm to School grant, it was not until several years ago that the district started considering the intersection of culturally relevant foods with farm to school.
A principal from one of the district’s middle schools approached Chad with a unique challenge involving a group of immigrant students. These middle school students were going home at lunch to eat and not returning to school because they were uncomfortable with the foods being offered through school lunch, and too embarrassed to bring their traditional foods from home. Chad met with these students and their families and asked what they would like to see offered on the school lunch menu. He did not want the changes to be a one time hit and miss, so DMPS committed to offering noodles and/or rice everyday at this middle school per the students’ request. In the end, it was a win for all students. Chad noted that, “the Midwest native students wanted to try the new foods, too.”
Today, DMPS Food Service works to provide flavor stations in many of their schools, giving students access to a variety of culturally-relevant herbs, sauces and other flavor enhancers such as locally grown jalapenos. Chad was quick to point out that not every flavor station looks the same because every school has students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Since the 1970’s, the district has included a number of immigrant and refugee populations from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Even within a single school district farm to school is not one size fits all.
About 4,000 miles from Des Moines, a farm to school pilot on the island of Kauai in Hawaii is taking off under the direction of Megan Fox, Executive Director for the nonprofit organization Mala’ai Kula. There are approximately 350 students in the four charter schools that Mala’ai Kula serves. Most of the students are native Hawaiian and have chosen to attend these schools because of programs such as Hawaiian Language immersion, which allows students to learn in their native language before learning in English. The emphasis on the importance of native traditions extends into these schools’ food service and education thanks, in part, to the support from Mala’ai Kula, a recipient of a National Farm to School Network Seed Change in Native Communities* mini-grant.
Since Hawaii was colonized, the western diet has brought non-traditional foods such as nitrite-filled meats and ultra-processed snacks to the island. Today, Hawaiians have high rates of diet-related diseases such as chronic high blood pressure and diabetes. This is one of the many reasons that Mala’ai Kula’s farm to school pilot work is so important. Megan described farm to school as a tool for “giving local farmers an outlet for native foods.” She added that farm to school helps in the effort toward “creating a traditional food way and bringing back a more native diet.”
With funding support from Seed Change, several of the schools’ food service staff attended an Edible Schoolyard training in Berkley, California this summer. This training served as an invaluable tool that inspired one school chef to reconnect with the importance of Hawaii’s native foods, also known as canoe foods. Kalo (taro), ‘Ulu (breadfruit), and ‘Uala (sweet potatoes) are all canoe foods that are now growing in school gardens, being served up on school lunch and breakfast trays, and serving as teaching resources to connect students to their ancestry.
From a large school district in the Midwest to small, native charter schools in Kauai, a focus on culturally relevant foods can look vastly different depending on the school community. Many farm to school slogans highlight the power of farm to school’s ability to ‘serve up change.’ The Des Moines Public Schools and Mala’ai Kula remind us that using farm to school to ‘serve up tradition’ can be just as powerful.
*Seed Change in Native Communities with Farm to School is made possible with generous support from the Aetna Foundation, a national foundation based in Hartford, Conn. that supports projects to promote wellness, health and access to high-quality health care for everyone.