A few years ago, after reviewing a “menu calendar” from my kids’ school (aka 365 ways to say ‘chicken nuggets’), I called Beth Feehan, executive director of the NJ Farm to School Network. I wanted to know what it took to get some fresh local food into my kids’ cafeteria. “We can help you,” she said, “but you’re looking at a year or so of enough work for a full time job.” Yes, it took that long to get some veggies into a school cafeteria. These days, largely due to the relentless work of people like Beth, it’s getting easier...
The Farm to School Network is a national organization whose mission is to support community-based food systems and improve student health. In other words: ensure that school children have the opportunity to eat healthy foods from local farms.
What looks like a straightforward task - mobilizing food from farms to nearby schools - turns out to be a very complex operation. It takes rebooting and re-educating the whole system: school districts, food distributors, dining services, parents, educators and policy makers. “It’s like a medusa,” says Beth, “you have the Farm to School Network in the middle and then many moving arms. We make sure that each arm is doing its part.”
It all boils down to education. “School districts need to be educated about working with small farms, farmers need to be educated about working with school districts, policy makers need to know what legislation is requiered, parents need to be encouraged to teach the kids about nutrition, cafeteria workers need to learn to handle fresh food, teachers need the tools to incorporate gardening into the curriculum...” You get the picture.
And Beth, with the help of a few volunteers, does it all: from knife skills workshops for cafeteria workers to Twitter training for farmers to lobbying in Trenton.
The NJ Farm to School Network also offers garden education. They teach children, educators and families about food literally from the ground up. In cooperation with another trailblazer, Dorothy Mullen, Beth provides support for schools who want to start a vegetables garden. Coming up in January are garden webinar and other events, listed in this newsletter.
Beth is a Rutgers alumnus (journalism), a mother of three and a graduate of the French Culinary Institute. In 1993, armed with her newly earned culinary degree, Beth started a business of making organic vegetable stock. Dean & DeLuca and Gourmet Garage were among her clients but, in 1995 she shut the business down and moved to the UK for her husband's work. “When we returned back to the US, there were lots of veggie stocks on the market,” she says. “A big disappointment for me.”
The seeds to the NJ Farm to School Network were planted in 2002. Beth attended a talk by Alice Waters, the revolutionary California chef (and a NJ native) who pioneered a school garden program. “(After this talk) I started asking questions in my own school district,” she recalls. “I had three kids in school and I put my mind towards finding out more about school lunches.”
That was the beginning of a long journey. Along the way, in 2004, Beth co-founded the West Windsor Community Farmers Market which was voted New Jersey’s #1 Farmer Market by the American Farmland Trust.
Finally, in August of 2008, Beth incepted The NJ Farm to School Network with Mikey Azzara, then the Outreach Director at NOFA NJ, and Eric Tadlock, formerly the Education Coordinator at Fernbrook Farms.
All the hard work and dedication are bearing fruits now: in less than a decade Farm to School programs across the country have grown from just 2 to over 2,000. These programs vary in size and scope but are all united by the principal of making fresh local food available to school children. According to Beth, the First Lady, Michelle Obama, has been a tremendous force in moving the movement forward with the Share our Strength No Kid Hungry campaign and promoting legislation.
“What we are calling for is a revolution in public education,” writes Alice Waters , “the Delicious Revolution. When the hearts and minds of our children are captured by a school lunch curriculum, enriched with experience in the garden, sustainability will become the lens through which they see the world.”