The Female Farmer Project

documenting the rise of women in agriculture

guest essay: farm-to-school part two

Thank you to Anne Becker for her contribution to The Female Farmer Project and the Farm-To-School Guest Series.  

Start where you are.

By Anne Becker

Assistant Cheesemaker, Cherry Valley Dairy


Early in the morning, on the winding country road that leads into Duvall, you can count on two things: school buses and commuter cars with bleary-eyed passengers, and an odd woman in dairy whites and a hairnet, pushing a mystery cart up the hill. I'm that woman, and I'm delivering a precious cargo of fresh, natural cheese wheels to the "cave" where they will age and ripen for six months. Kids peer through the fogged-up bus windows and always wonder what the heck I am doing. Seeing them reminds me of middle school mornings many years ago, when I would be running on empty from the time I ran out the door with my backpack until lunch, when I would be starving and anxious and very focused on filling my salt and carb cravings just to make it through the next few classes (where I would usually go home and binge on salt and fat again, to tide me over until dinner). I often wish I could break off a hunk of cheese (handmade, in their town, by the neighbors, with less than four ingredients and lots of protein) and hand it to them as the bus lumbers up the road! It would surely be better than the chocolate milk and salty snacks they will more than likely opt to eat in lieu of the salad bar.

In partnership with fellow farmers and with the cooperation of the Riverview School District, we have the opportunity, as producers, local businesses and neighbors, to nourish our young community and introduce them to new foods and choices that will have a big impact on their future. Last week, we all took time out of our schedules to discuss practical, inexpensive, and fun ideas that could last throughout the school year and give kids access to local food choices every day. It was a productive meeting of the minds, and our next planning session is already scheduled.

We don’t need to stand on a soap box, throw out scary health and ingredient statistics. Administrators, educators, parents and kids hear about it all the time. Many decision makers wish they could have piles of fresh, local produce. They know the buzzwords “local,” “sustainable,” “food deserts,” and “diabetes epidemic.” But it doesn’t change the tough economic and logistical choices that schools and families have to make right now. We have to start where we are, and in my opinion, that’s a great place. We live in a valley full of engaged, dedicated farmers. We have a school district that is willing to try new things while working within their guidelines. We have thousands of hungry kids. Let’s roll up our sleeves and see what we have, what we need, and what’s possible today to put real food in the lunchroom.

Before I was a cheesemaker in Duvall, I was a health policy analyst and healthcare public relations specialist in D.C.  I know all to well that many school health initiatives get started with lots of fanfare, but run out of resources, corporate support and PR budget before long term changes can be realized. We need to be practical: start small, but see the big picture. Remember all of the organic groceries available at the store 15 years ago? I don’t either. It takes time and a dedicated drum beat that is driven by everyone, not just the affluent or health-conscious. I’ve read and campaigned and tweeted more statistical and government studies than I can remember. They all said the same thing, regardless of who commissioned the study: at school, at restaurants and often at home, kids are eating way too much salt, fat and sugar, and it is contributing to skyrocketing obesity and chronic illness, inability to focus and perform in school, and high healthcare costs that are depleting family and government resources. If this isn’t a national security crisis, I don’t know what is.

To get more local produce and minimally-processed foods into schools today, we need to understand that the rules and the barriers we may face, and work with them. We need to understand that the school lunch program is a sign of our nation’s unique success over the past century, but that in our quest to generate abundant and cheap food for our growing population, we chose shortcuts that have led to health and environmental crises we have to face now. We need to be respectful to the women and men who work all morning to prepare school meals and are often the brunt of kids’ complaints and jokes. Small farms and dairies may have lots of food to offer to schools, but can they afford to sell it at the cheap price our procurement system demands? Do we need invest more of our limited farm resources to modify foods (like my natural cheese) to meet federal dietary requirements? Do taxpayers want to pay more? Will parents take time out of their hectic schedules to speak up, or even volunteer? Transforming our school food system and improving kids’ diets for the long-term will take more than limited grants or celebrity campaigns. It’s going to require participation at all levels, and creativity that will make schools, and students, want more of this good thing.

We’re ready to work with our friends at Riverview School District, and energized by the new relationships and support we receive every day in this community. Let’s start where we are, work with what we have, and if it takes time to do it right, so be it. I’m happy for all of us, especially the kids, because it’s going to be a delicious journey.

Oh, and if you see that woman in white, pushing her cart of cheese down Cherry Valley Road, honk if you love REAL FOOD IN SCHOOLS!

Originally published in January 24, 2014


Copyright Audra Mulkern 2017