Farm to Cafeteria: People at the Center of the Solution

This past week I had the pleasure of representing Grow Montana’s Farm to Cafeteria Connections Network at the 6th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Burlington, Vermont. Somehow five days of inspirational workshops, late night conversations and delicious food was not enough, no matter how sleepless it was. These national gatherings are an opportunity to share ideas, network and showcase on-the-ground projects that dig into the work of getting tasty, healthy, local food into the bellies of communities across the country.

Driving away from Burlington the ideas and examples to bring back to Montana bounced around my head. It’s hard to know where to start. The Junior Iron Chef Vermont serves up inspiration, hosting a statewide cooking competition with over 300 middle and high school students participating last year. This is a great way to get youth excited about preparing and eating local food. There was also the mapping effort of the Edible School Yard project out of Berkley that offers users the opportunity to showcase their local projects, resources they’ve utilized and information on curriculum. These are only two examples of the variety. But the main thing I left with was seeing the benefit of a robust network that offers support, resources and trouble-shooting advice for anyone who may need it around farm to institution and sourcing local food.

As I made my way back to Montana I was consumed with the question of: How do we keep building this network? What do we need to pull people in, especially those off the radar that would benefit from a resource like this?

There are a variety of statewide organizations that have been doing great work in facilitating this conversation already. Grow Montana has served as a key participant in the dialogue, and helped to develop programs like FoodCorps for Rural Montana. The Alternative Energy Resources Organization has partnered with the Montana Department of Agriculture on a statewide community food mapping

project that will assist in determining where gaps exist in our food system infrastructure. A newer player in this conversation is Montana Team Nutrition, which will be hosting Taking Root: Montana Farm to School Conference, August 16th and 17th. The conference has an anticipated 115 participants from across Montana.

In addition to these efforts Montana has been home to a handful of food-system models that have gone national. The Farm to College program at the University of Montana was one example in the beginning of the nationwide institutional trend of buying local. This was followed by Montana FoodCorps, which served as an example and testing ground for the now national FoodCorps program. Both the Montana and national FoodCorps have been central to growing and expanding food education, school and community gardens and the procurement of local food at institutions. Deb Eschmeyer, Director of policy and partnership with FoodCorps, said of the program last week, we “put people at the center of the solution” by placing them in organizations doing the groundwork for healthy, sustainable food solutions in communities across the country.

This year there will be 92 FoodCorps service members across 12 states who will be the people at the center of the solution. This is phenomenal, especially to think that this program is only in its second year. But what about the communities and states that have no service members working on these projects?

For me it is imperative that the upsurge in interest around sourcing, educating and eating local foods keeps its momentum, particularly after Taking Root: Montana Farm to School conference has long since passed. To do that someone needs to provide education and resources around these opportunities and find ways to support those who didn’t know they were doing this work. I think it may be easier than we expect.

The next step could be is as simple as talking to the lunch lady at a local school, the food service manager at the nearby college or the cooks at your hometown hospital. Often times these people don’t realize they are already buying local, so congratulate them and then encourage them to buy more. Educate the consumer about where their food comes from, bring youth on farm field trips, or offer local cooking classes. Once the consumer demand for eating local exists, the cooks, food service managers and lunch ladies will want to meet it. By educating and empowering those already at the center we can help them become the solution.

In Bozeman, I’m Lyra Leigh Nedbor for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at

This commentary originally aired on Montana Public Radio on August 16th, 2012.

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