In a recent interview with Chef Jessica Wright, Director of Healthy Food in Institutions at Nourish Colorado, she shares a crucial step to be an advocate and foster others to become advocates with you.
“Anyone can be an advocate,” shares Chef Jessica Wright. That’s right—farmers, farmworkers, food processors and distributors, school food service staff, school administrators, parents and students all have power to make change. “To make farm to school the norm, it’s a big puzzle. We each have a part of this puzzle, a role, and an impact in this bigger picture,” says Wright.
NFSN’s Call to Action reflects this, shifting away from “I’m doing the work for you” or vice-versa to “we each have a part to play.” Even though this sounds simple, we can often feel frustrated seeing inaction. It feels like people aren’t doing their part, and nothing changes. It feels like we’re alone against the world.
Now consider the reverse perspective. Many of us who have worked in the food system, whether on a farm or in a school, know that it can be a thankless job. Wright empathizes with this sentiment, reflecting on her experience working with food service staff: “I’ve worked with teams who’ve been consistently brushed aside or made to feel undervalued, and their mindset can go to ‘everything we’re doing is not good enough.’ It’s easy to feel defeated and feel like their work is not valued or appreciated as it should be.”
Approaching with Curiosity
Have you ever had someone come to you and tell you you’re doing things wrong? That you should do this or do that? It probably didn’t feel great, and even if you changed something in that moment, you probably went back to your normal routine after. Many who have worked in the food system know this well.
Regarding food service staff, Wright says, “It can feel so defeating when people criticize the quality of school meals when they haven’t worked a month in a school kitchen and don’t understand regulatory challenges, budgetary challenges, or staffing shortages.” It’s not a good starting point in any partnership.
How do we make sure we don’t do this ourselves? Wright suggests, “start by educating yourself.” Although she acknowledges that it may not be feasible to work in a school kitchen for a month, she says that you can approach the conversation differently. “Start with listening and learning about the other person. Look at the assets. Understand the realities of their role. Build these relationships. Build people up.”
Wright shares a few questions you can ask:
- What are you doing that you’re proud of?
- What are some barriers and challenges you’re facing?
- What do you wish people in other roles understood about the challenges and realities of your role?
When Wright has asked these questions, she has uncovered many things that may have gone unnoticed before. “I love how you know every student’s name.” “This is an impeccably clean and organized kitchen.” “It’s awesome that this school district bakes their own bread.” “This school buys lettuce from across the street and mixes it in with their salad.”
For people who are unsure of their impact, Wright shares an example that food service staff can consider: “I feed 200 kids every single day. When you add that up to the course of 168 days, that’s over 33,000 meals that I have served to my community.”
Why Does This Matter?
A common saying in community organizing is, “change happens at the speed of trust.” If we want to build a food system where 100% of communities hold power in a racially just food system, trust is required. In order to do this, a crucial first step is listening.
Noticing and celebrating the good that’s already happening can take people out of the day-to-day grind. Rather than shifting blame towards certain people, this acknowledges the inequities of the systems that we all work within and that action and leadership already exist and can be built upon.
Starting from a place of understanding can break down walls and shift the conversation from “us vs. them” to “us together vs. the problem.” This is a powerful first step that can empower each person to be an advocate with a role to play.
Taking the first step to listen and understand can help us figure out step two together. And interestingly, when we do this, we might notice we’re not so alone in the work.
In celebration of Farm to School Month and this year’s theme, “Who’s at the Table?”, we are highlighting the valuable contributors across the food system. There are many different players. How can we better connect with each other? And what does it look like to value each other's contributions, expertise and leadership? Keep following along with us this month as we envision a food system in which no one is left out, in which everyone can access nourishing food.
About Chef Jessica Wright
Jessica brings a "chef mentality" to school food programs, where she implements workshops, trains and supports staff with their culinary skills, assesses their kitchen operations and helps with community engagement. She also supports the other departments of Nourish Colorado as they work to create sustainable and equitable food systems throughout Colorado and the US. Over the last couple of years, Jessica's work focused on the development, implementation and fine-tuning of the Local Procurement Colorado, Culinary Trainings, and School Food Initiative along with supporting school districts and institutions as they introduce more from-scratch meals and fresh produce into their programs. Her passion lies in supporting school districts as they provide access to healthy meals while playing a larger role in creating systemic changes to our food system.
Learn more about Chef Jessica and Nourish Colorado at https://nourishcolorado.org
Thank you to the following sponsors for supporting the work: CoBank, Farm Credit, and National Co+Op Grocers.