School Lunch Table Takes Center Stage at First International Farm to Table Symposium

Katie Mularz, Guest SSAWG BLAWGER

Farm to School (F2S) is a fundamental change beginning with how the public perceives the meals served in schools across the country...

A convergence of Farm to Table (F2T) advocates and professionals descended upon New Orleans August 2-4, 2013, to hear panel discussions on a variety of topics such as: local food distribution, government food policy, genetic engineering, health nutrition, and farm to school. Session panelist ran the gamut of: restauranteur, farmer, school food director, scientist, publisher, attorney et al. While each panel represented a unique discipline of the F2T movement, the collaborative theme of the conference was a profound need for a paradigm shift.

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  LAUSD School Food Director,
David Binkle, ends Saturday’s sessions at the F2T International Symposium in
New Orleans with keynote address on School Food.

LAUSD School Food Director, David Binkle, ends Saturday’s sessions at the F2T International Symposium in New Orleans with keynote address on School Food.

Leading the Farm to School (F2S) discussion on change and societal perspective was Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Food Services Director, David Binkle. Having 20 years of F2S practice, he brought practical knowledge, stories of success and solutions for challenge. He then closed the F2T conference for the day with a keynote on how any community no matter the size or location can accomplish change, they just have to “do it rather than talk about it”.

Beginning with perception, Binkle called attention to the name of the session he was participating in as a panelist: “School Food: Who Needs It? ” His immediate reply: “Nobody. What we need is good food served in schools”. Thus, the theme for a paradigm shift continued and audience members learned how LAUSD has accomplished changing the way people look at food, health, and incorporating nutrition into childhood education.

One of the best practices Binkle and his colleagues have developed over the years concerns food procurement. Essentially, they reinvented the procurement system in LAUSD. Rather than purchasing food via invitation bids, they utilize a "general contractor philosophy" and issue requests for proposals (RFP). This strategy has opened the door for individuals and businesses into what used to be an industry exclusive process. During the plenary session, Binkle stated he wasn't looking for a "school food only" vendor or distributor; "If your food or product isn't good enough for a white linen restaurant, it's not good enough for a school" he told audience members.

Included in each RFP are set criteria for each vendor including: marketing technique, supply chain standards, pricing methodology, and social responsibility. Each RFP requires a 200 mile radius for sourcing and the vendor must propose how they would accomplish sourcing.The greatest innovation as a result of the RFP process is illustrated in the distribution channels. One of the new vendors LAUSD partnered with currently satisfies the 200 mile radius criteria by subcontracting distribution to local farmers and local markets. In addition to adding jobs to the local market, there is a decrease in the distribution distance and an increase in local product sales entering the local schools. The percentage of locally sourced produce in LAUSD increased from 9% in 2009 to 72% in 2012 as a result of changing procurement practices.

Another facet in the F2S movement is public relations. Parents need to know why it is important for their children to eat good, nutritional food in school and they need to hear and see that their children enjoy eating healthy food. Tatum Wan, another F2T panelist and publicist for LAUSD added to Saturday’s discussion about how to get the campaign “buy in” from a target audience. Wan is the driving force behind LAUSD’s "I'm In" campaign which promotes healthy eating lifestyles. Examples of her initiatives within LAUSD include recipe contests for new and healthy menu items; the winner of the contest was announced on one of the local news stations in L.A., and naming the cafeterias in the district “Cafe L.A.” in order to rebrand the cafeteria image as a cafe or restaurant. Everything Wan does to improve the nutritional education in LAUSD she shares with the media. "If you aren't talking about it to the media then nobody knows it's going on".

Additional suggestions from school food panelists regarding how to make the change to F2S include: bringing local chefs into schools to promote the initiative and having them speak on the importance of healthy eating both at home and in school, utilizing available state USDA programs and national non- profit programs such as Cooking Up Change, Reaching out to health professionals in the school district to support the F2S initiative, aligning with local food policy council members, reaching out to philanthropic communities to share about the initiative, and inviting local celebrities, entertainment figures, and talking heads to support the cause or speak at school functions. Also, creating a unique campaign with a brand, like the "I'm In" campaign, that is specific to the school district joins schools together in the F2S movement while making it their own healthy campaign.

Overall, there is not one specific approach to take when dealing with changing the mindset of a community or a school district. Multiple channels must be navigated with the support of likeminded individuals, associations, businesses, and organizations. There will always be internal and external pushback, but the more people who get involved in helping children eat healthy and nutritious meals during school, the more movement F2S will make.

According to F2T conference planners, approximately 500 individuals attended the conference over the weekend. Being the inaugural conference, planners only expect turnout to increase in years to come. Saturday indeed was the busiest day of the conference, with many of the sessions at capacity.

The conference itself was high energy, fast paced and delightful. Friday, all attendees were given a buffet style lunch with F2T fare at every course. A few of the menu items included: fresh peaches, plums, mixed green salad, farmers market salad with heirloom tomatoes, roasted corn and brown rice, various deli sandwiches and a watermelon gazpacho. Saturday, measured up just as well with local chef demonstrations feeding hungry audience members in addition to the Louisiana Restaurant Association serving up new and exciting samples to all who passed through their Foodservice & Hospitality EXPO doors.

NOTE: Our guest SSAWG BLAWGer, Katie Mularz lives in New Orleans, LA and is an avid Farm to School & Farm to Table proponent. Katie shares her passion through volunteer work with various organizations, blogging, content curation and raising awareness anywhere and everywhere she can about Farm to School and Farm to Table. We thank her for her contributions to our Southern SAWG BLAWG. Let us know if you have an opportunity to give us an on the ground report sometime!

Pam Kingfisher