The Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), community partner of FOCUS district Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), has been on the sustainable food scene since 1978 – one of the veteran organizations of its ilk nationwide. Their mission is simple: to support family farmers in California and promote sustainable agriculture.
CAFF works in several program areas, including a “small but mighty” Policy program, and a Biological Agriculture program, which provides consultation to biodynamic, organic and conventional farmers, steering them toward practices that improve their sustainability – controlling erosion, bringing greater biodiversity onto the farm, and reducing pesticide use.
But it’s the Farm to School program – up and running since 2001 – that works side by side with OUSD, planning to make big changes in procurement in lunchrooms all over the district.
Working from all angles
For CAFF, Farm to School includes activities with two complementary pieces: the “Know Your Farmer” educational program (“We’ve been using that name long before the USDA program was announced,” Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, director of CAFF’s Farm to School program, assures us), which brings farmers into classrooms, teaches cooking lessons, and organizes student field trips to farms; and the Harvest of the Month program, which packages local produce, one item a month, and puts a series of lessons together with a farmer profile to send out to classes.
CAFF also provides technical assistance to school food service professionals about how to feature local produce on the menu – where to find it, how to create a place for it within the menu, and how to promote the items to students.
“Ideally, both components would happen simultaneously in each school enrolled in our Farm to School program,” says Carlisle-Cummins. But, with the way things have developed in reality, she explains, “our activities are a little more piecemeal than that.” That said, CAFF has made great progress in California schools: its Farm to School activities reach approximately 50,000 students per year.
Five years ago, the “case” for farm to school was more difficult to make, explains Carlisle-Cummins. But when she was approached by Jennifer LeBarre, the director of nutrition services at OUSD – a district where CAFF had no previous activity with their Farm to School program – she realized, “A-ha! The moment has come!” Clearly, farm to school was starting to make sense to more and more food service professionals, and with 9 years of farm to school experience, CAFF was confident they could model the program to be a successful endeavor in OUSD.
CAFF and OUSD have been working together since October 2009. This collaboration involves three major activities for the 2009-2010 school year: convening Farm to School stakeholder meetings with teachers, parents, students, and food service staff; analyzing current produce purchasing and suggesting shifts toward more local sourcing; and writing a produce contract bid that includes a local produce preference.
CAFF is working hard to determine what “local” might actually mean for OUSD, including examining the possibility of a “concentric circles” model, where the first circle is the smallest and most ideal version of “local.” They are also considering goals to increase the percentages of locally sourced produce each year by specific amounts.
“We’re really happy to see that the FOCUS Learning Lab model aligns with CAFF’s model when it comes to local produce bids,” says Carlisle-Cummins. “We hope to be able to make that model work within districts of all sizes in California.”
The future looks bright
So, what does the future hold for CAFF?
Carlisle-Cummins says she would like to see more student and community education about where food comes from, supplementing existing educational efforts from both CAFF and other organizations working on similar issues.
She’d also love to see more and better plans for ensuring students are involved in and excited about the changes that are happening on their menus. “Engagement with the kids who actually eat the food is absolutely critical to the success of any farm to school program,” says Carlisle-Cummins.