By Eric Himmelfarb
On November 14th, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced the first-ever USDA Farm to School grants, which totaled more than $4.5 million for 68 different projects around the country, and will go a long way towards reshaping the interplay between our children, the schools that teach them, and the local farmers that feed us all.
The grant money will be used for projects serving a wide range of functions, including building school gardens, developing new partnerships between school districts and local farmers, and hiring staff to coordinate farm to school programs.
These USDA grants seem to be taking school food policy in a healthier, more sustainable direction, and this is why we should be excited about this as both a statement of policy and a philosophical shift in how the next generation will relate to its food. Add these grants to the new school food guidelines initially established in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and then implemented this school year, and you have a clear shifting of the school food landscape.
When we think about the task of changing the way our food is grown and prepared in a substantive way, it can often seem like a daunting, Sisyphean task. Federal agricultural policies are firmly entrenched, to the point where the Farm Bill has become a 700-page monstrosity that is about a whole lot more than agricultural policy. Stakeholders who enjoy the status quo will defend that status quo at almost any cost (see: the $46 million spent against Prop 37 in California last month). Enormous systemic and political inertia can be hard to overcome.
Yet we can take small steps each day. We can always find ways to begin repairing our society’s relationship to its food. In our younger generation we can plant the seeds for a cultural shift, for a renewal and reinvention of the Slow Food values of good, clean and fair food for all. This unsustainable system was not built in a day, but every day we do not work to repair it is a day lost to inertia. It will take a long series of incremental shifts to put us on a more sustainable path.
Here in New York City, the cultural shift is happening right in front of our eyes in real time. As announced in the New York Times in November, the number of school gardens registered with the city has increased in the last two years from 40 to 232. I was an apprentice at Battery Urban Farm this fall and got to see firsthand the power of kids having their hands in soil and the ways this farm to school connection is much more than a simple exchange of food.
The experience for the kids on the farm is profound, as it gives them a way to connect to the earth that is unusual for city kids; to connect to the source of their continued livelihood; and to understand how the food that ends up on their plate begins its life.
More projects like this one – through the myriad connections to land, self, and community that they can create – will go a long way towards laying the groundwork for a culture of healthier and fairer food.
When I hear 7 year-old kids, on the way to the eggplant beds, excitedly calling out the names of other crops (“carrots!” “basil!”) that they spot along the way, I can’t help but feel that we are off to a good start here in our repair work. The new USDA grants bring us that much closer to the actualization of a healthier, fairer way of growing, preparing, and consuming our food.