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Tilth Conference 2016: Fertile Ground for Learning

Posted by Emily Barber | January 30, 2017

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

Emily BarberIt was a pleasure and a privilege to attend the 2016 Tilth Conference in Wenatchee, Washington. As an undergraduate student of Organic Agriculture Systems at Washington State University, this conference offers so much readily applicable information that it can be difficult to choose which workshops to attend! I enjoyed all of the talks I went to, but I found the workshop called “Growing Farm to School: Where Do We Go from Here?” most intriguing. Joan Qazi of the Washington State Sustainable Food and Farming Network and Chris Iberle from the WSDA Small Farm Direct Marketing and Farm to School programs led the discussion about the challenges and future direction of the program.

Farm to School was started in 2008, and is a program that creates student interaction with farms, food production, and fresh fruits and vegetables, including purchasing food from local farms for cafeteria meals, taking students on farm field trips, school garden programs, or other similar activities. Of the 295 school districts in Washington, over 100 are participating in Farm to School activities. Most of those are buying produce from local farms, and there is survey evidence that 64% of school districts that are not purchasing directly from farms are interested in doing so. This tells me that schools are excited to be involved, and there is a lot of room to expand this program!

There are many barriers for both schools and farmers to becoming involved with Farm to School. Schools are allowed about $2.50 per student meal, which includes the cost of ingredients, processing, labor, and other overheads. They have 23 cents per serving of vegetables and 26 cents per serving of fruit. This would add up incredibly quickly, and the challenge to provide healthy fresh meals to students with these restrictions is a very tall order. Adding to that, schools are also required to follow strict nutritional requirements that can make it very difficult to be flexible and creative with scratch cooking. For farmers, the challenges with entering Farm to School programs include finding schools to sell to and building relationships with, growing products that schools are interested in, and the fact that schools aren’t in session during the majority of the growing season. Additionally, 40% of schools in Washington require the farms they purchase from to be GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified. There is a new USDA Pilot Project for Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables, in which the USDA will pay a school’s bill from approved farms, but these farms will also be required to be GAP certified.

Photo: T. Gill via Flickr cc.
Photo: T. Gill via Flickr cc.

These barriers were defined through a group discussion between Joan, Chris, and the audience. The thing that struck me was that as the farmers and leaders in the audience identified their struggles with this program, the attitude of the room was not one of frustration (which would be understandable), but of curiosity and a willingness to work through the problems. I was impressed with how deeply these producers believed in this program.  Their compassion for the students was the clear motivator for their continued work with the Farm to School endeavor, and this was very inspiring to see.

As I look into my future, I can see myself becoming involved with social programs such as Farm to School. It was very encouraging to hear about the how the program is doing currently, and to see that there may be need and opportunity for someone like me to become involved in the future. The audience members mentioned a definite need for devoted coordinators to facilitate communication and distribution from the farms to the schools. They also talked about the need for people to come into the schools and work with the cafeteria staff to improve meals without offending them, and to encourage and teach the students to eat their fruits and vegetables. These possibilities are exciting to me, and I am very grateful that I had to opportunity to attend this workshop to learn about this inspiring new program!