Yesterday I attended the listening session in Oxnard for the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Ag Vision process. These sessions are an opportunity for the public to provide comments directly to the State Board of Food and Agriculture and to the California Secretary of Agriculture, A.G. Kawamura. Anyone with a stake in CA agriculture (that is, all eaters) should also provide comments to the board expressing your vision for CA agriculture in the year 2030. If you missed the opportunity to attend a listening session in your area, you can still submit comments by email.
This visioning process is an important undertaking, and CDFA should be commended for opening itself up to public comment and input. If the agricultural system in this state is to ever resemble the sustainable and locally-focused system that we envision, then the public will need to make their desires known. My comments to the Board regarding how CDFA can better support farm to school are below.
My vision for the California agricultural system is one that mandates sustainability and relies more heavily on smaller scale agriculture. I also envision a system that focuses on the food needs of Californians. Specifically I am here to advocate for farm to school programs. I would like see farm to school become part of the mission of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, this could best be demonstrated by having a statewide farm to school coordinator housed in CDFA. Additionally, in order to increase the number of farm to school programs we need higher school meal reimbursement rates for schools and policies that allow schools to preferentially purchase locally grown foods.
Some of the challenges to achieving this will be need for greater funding for small agriculture, improved direct market opportunities, and increased support for farmers’ markets. We also need to seriously think about restructuring the agricultural economy to allow space for small farmers who have been left out of the conventional distribution system. Another huge challenge is the need for education about agriculture. In Los Angeles, where I work, I am shocked by how little students know about agriculture, despite its significance to the state of California.
Fortunately, farm to school is an excellent vehicle for providing education. With its marriage of highlighting locally grown foods in the cafeteria, and nutrition and agricultural education in the classroom, it’s a program that can make a real impact on students.
Farm to School has been shown to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among students. It can be a great direct marketing opportunity for farmers. And at its root, it just makes sense to grow California food for California’s kids.
In order to increase the number of farm to school program we need greater collaboration between CDFA and the California Department of Education, which administers the school lunch program. We need rules allowing and facilitating sales of local food from farmers’ markets to institutions. We need greater integration with existing distribution infrastructure in the state, such as with the Department of Defense system. A farm to school staff person in CDFA could help achieve all of this.
For ten years, California has been the leader in farm to school. Now, neighboring states such as Oregon and Washington (as well as 16 other states) have passed legislation supporting farm to school and have hired farm to school staff people in their Departments of Agriculture. Now it is time for California to follow in their footsteps so that more schools and farmers can benefit from farm to school.