Equity in Farm to School with Jamese Kwele

Posted on August 7, 2020

Jamese Kwele, EcotrustThis year’s Northeast Farm to School Institute* launched virtually with fourteen school, district and early childhood teams and a keynote by Jamese Kwele who serves as Director of Food Equity at Ecotrust. Jamese oversees Farm to Institution initiatives while guiding the development of partnerships and new bodies of work at the intersections of food and land justice, soil regeneration, and climate resilience. Jamese also serves as a board member for the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition and the National Farm to School Network

The theme of Jamese’s talk was advancing equity in Farm to School, and she began by acknowledging there is no easy checklist for this work: “Centering equity and advancing racial justice is long-haul work that requires self-reflection, education, difficult conversations, and sustained action. It’s about making change; it’s about learning; it’s about growing as a movement; it’s about shifting, and yes, it’s about dismantling systems of oppression that exist both within us and outside of us.”

Jamese shared some powerful examples from Northeast schools that are engaging in Farm to School with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind:

  • Teachers at Champlain Elementary in Burlington are rethinking the garden and cooking curriculum to diversify both the crops and the conversations that emerge from the students’ stewardship of that land and soil. Crops that reflect New American populations and Abenaki food traditions will be added to the garden and school kitchen, alongside typical Vermont crops.
  • Students at Sustainability Academy in Burlington studied healthy communities and wondered why they had access to fresh produce in the school cafeteria but not in the community? They worked with a teacher to do an audit of local shops and bodegas and interviewed store managers about what it would take to carry fresh products. They then worked together to get storage friendly items into markets.
  • Educator Andrew Margon at the High School for Environmental Studies shared, "A classroom that seeks to actively address racism and systemic oppression does so through pedagogy, through upending traditional power dynamics that exist in the classroom so that students have more voice, more choice, see themselves reflected in the content, and are given the right tools to access that content. In other words, while it is about content, it's actually more about everything else."

Jamese concluded with a quote from the book Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies by Samy Alim and Django Paris: “Being and becoming a culturally sustaining educator is dynamic; it’s about critically learning with community; it’s about, together, sustaining who youth and communities are and want to be; and it’s about doing all of that with respect and love.”

Jamese’s thought provoking talk and other Institute workshops and presentations will support schools as they develop their Farm to School action plans with an equity framework. 

Both during and following Jamese’s presentation, Institute participants were invited to ask questions specific to their work and experience. Below are the conversations that occurred:

“I would love to hear more about how to better engage families.”

I don't necessarily have any check-the-box answers, but I would say that when engaging families and community, you want to think holistically. What do families in your community look like? Does your staff, the folks doing the work, reflect those families? Do they feel comfortable? Do they feel included in the work? Are you creating a dialogue? Are you getting to know those families? Are you engaging them as leaders and advocates who help shape the work, and take on paid positions, rather than it being something that just intends to serve them? Then you’ve supported family-to-family engagement where parents or caregivers are able to work using a community organizing model where folks are able to go out into the community and engage with other families and other parents and caregivers. I think Head Start uses a really great model—it’s a community council with staff, former participants, and it is mandatory that parents are on it.

“How can we make resources and spaces available to young people to drive choice and diversity in the cafeterias and classrooms?”

I worked at The Food Trust for ten years, and they have a really great model of how to do that with the H.Y.P.E. Program: Healthy You Positive Energy. They do an incredible job of centering youth leadership, engaging youth, and shaping decisions around what was served in the cafeteria. There are like youth leadership councils, which brainstorm ideas for different foods that could be in the cafeteria. They come up with recipes, talk with the school cafeteria staff, and get buy-in. Then they select one or two foods for student taste tests to ground truth their ideas with youth at the school. Students vote on their favorite dishes, and that information is shared with the school cafeteria staff. Later on, items that the students selected are put on the school cafeteria menu.

“What are some strategies you've seen work for recruitment and retention in farm to school programs? How do you sustain those efforts?”

I think it really has to do with people seeing themselves and their desires reflected in the programming. So often, you might have difficulty with recruiting folks and retention if there's not a connection between the folks who are leading the work and the folks who are served by the work. Programs where the people who are leading and doing the work reflect the community, have close connections to the community, and share a lived experience with the community tend to be more successful and have less of an issue with recruitment and retention in the program.

And make sure you're compensating folks who are taking on leadership roles. If you have a parent ambassador, make sure you’re really valuing the time and the expertise that they bring to the program, compensating them, and making sure that there are pathways to enter your organization. If year after year, your staff composition isn’t changing and you're not increasingly reflecting the community that you serve, there's an issue there. And in the food systems field, we have an issue with this. It’s a real thing that we need to contend with. It's always been important to change this, but I think now more than ever, we're seeing a lot of shifts in society, and it's time to make those changes.

“Diversity is not a strong point in our area. Should I try to incorporate international foods in our menus? Do you have suggestions for what foods could be introduced successfully to our less-than-varied demographic?”

There’s nothing wrong with looking at diversity, equity, and inclusion in farm to school by diversifying the menu and bringing in more culturally relevant foods. That's a great thing to do, in addition to sourcing from BIPOC farmers and food businesses. But what I really want people to do is push a little bit further. And so, in a school that has less racial diversity, what I really want us to focus on is equipping the young people in that school with tools to stand up for justice. That, to me, is more important than for example serving a culturally-relevant dish on your school menu. While it may support children of color in seeing themselves reflected in the food served, that alone doesn't really do anything or change anything. The goal isn't just to expose children to new foods from cultures that are different from their own. Ultimately, the goal is to shift power and to equip children with the knowledge and the skills to be able to stand up and fight for justice.
In less racially diverse schools, we need to explore race, identity, what it means for students to be white, and grapple with whiteness. And I think a lot of times, from the research I’m seeing, many parents in white families or white communities may think they are doing the right thing by not talking about race. And claiming they “don’t see color”. But that's actually harmful. Children notice differences in skin color. They recognize from a very young age that we have differences. We want to be honest about that. We want to equip children with the tools to talk about race from a young age. Just ignoring it and acting like those differences don't exist is not going to help anything. It is going to help perpetuate the existing problems that we have.
My daughter, for example, goes to a school started by four Black women who were parents of Black children in the Portland public schools. The Portland public schools were not serving their children, so they started their own school. It's a multiracial school— majority Black, where there are white children, Latino children, and children of all different racial backgrounds. They do an incredible job of teaching children about racial identity, developing a positive sense of self, and teaching children that, yes, we are different, but we're all valuable. And to celebrate those differences. They teach the students to talk about race differences with comfort. As they grow up, they're able to talk about these subjects with increasing levels of confidence. Then when it comes time to talk about injustice, racism and systemic oppression, they have the tools, they have the language.

“How can we explore race and identity in an authentic way in our 98% white student population? How do we frame the discussion about equity with very young children—infants and pre-K?”

I love this question. This is a great question. I'm not going to give you specific answers, but what I'm going to do is point you to some resources - there's a lot of research on this. I think what you'll find in those resources is, sometimes we think, “Okay, well, my school is almost all white, so how do I talk about this? Or should I even be talking about this?” And that's because we're centering whiteness. Being white is considered  “normal,” it's centered so it's not something most white people feel like needs to be talked about. We want to relocate whiteness. We want to think about a circle of different racial identities and take whiteness out from the center so it is part of the circle with every other racial identity. Being white is not the norm. It is constructed as the default in our society, but we want to shift that. That requires us to be conscious of whiteness, talk about the construction of whiteness, and learn about its impact on our society and the world: colonization, land and resource theft, enslavement, displacement, and all of these forces that are part of our history and our present. Everything is connected.
The education system, the criminal justice system, the public health system, the food system—all of these different systems are deeply racialized. And, and it's not by mistake, right? Many of them were intentionally created with racism at the core. We often say, “Oh, the food system, it's broken.” It's not broken, it's working exactly as it was intended to work. Ricardo Salvador, who is also on the advisory board for National Farm to School Network, has been a powerful voice for lifting up this concept. I suggest you watch some of his talks on YouTube.

Jamese also suggests these resources in regards to this question:


“We’re starting a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) group. We work with 100+ stakeholders who come to our collaborative action team meetings, but they’re not joining the DEI group. There's about two people who expressed interest out of all those people. I'm just not sure how to engage coworkers and share how important this work is.”

Yeah, that is a really, really great question. I'm sorry to hear that. I’m going to center Black, Indigenous and people of color who are leading this work and encountering resistance in my response. I would say that organizational equity work is really, really hard work and it involves navigating a lot of power dynamics. In some organizations, engaging in this work is really hard and can be really painful and really harmful, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and people of color staff. If you’re BIPOC, I really want to emphasize to folks that you have to be careful about what you put your energy into, because for BIPOC staff, equity work is not just something that you're doing from nine to five or during certain hours at your job—systemic racism impacts us all the time, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
So sometimes you're in a situation where you can engage in organizational equity work, and sometimes you're in a situation where you need to show up to work and conserve your energy. I've been in situations where I've done equity work in an organization, and it was just taking all of my energy. I was fighting a battle in an environment where there was no fertile ground for movement. So, particularly in this time when so many of us are healing from racial trauma, I want to emphasize the importance of taking care of ourselves and experiencing joy and love, and not putting too much energy into situations where there's no opportunity for movement. And equity work can’t just fall on people of color in the organization. It needs to be collectively held, with folks with more positional power and white folks taking on a greater burden for the work. We need to remember that the people who hold privilege within a system are responsible for dismantling it. It’s good for folks of color in the organization to be able to take a leadership role in the work to hold people in power accountable, but all of the labor of changemaking should not fall on folks of color in the organization.

“How do we fight, not just to feed people, but how do we change the system that is causing our people to be in the situation that we are in, especially in communities of color and urban areas where we can’t grow food, where we are dependent on supermarkets? How can we not just feed the people, but actually change the system?”

This is the million dollar question and something that's really important to me. Because it's not just about food access, right? It's really about food sovereignty. It's really about community control. It's really about community ownership. And in the food system, there are major issues across the board. And one of those is land access. I'm here in Oregon, a state founded on the exclusion of Black people. Black people were not even allowed to be here—it was built into the constitution. So the total population of Black people right now is like 2% for the whole state, and agricultural land ownership is less than 0.1% for Black folks. We want to work on dismantling inequity within the systems, and there are a lot of great organizations that are doing incredible work (HEAL Food Alliance, the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition in the Pacific Northwest, Soil Generation). It really is about dismantling the racism that exists within our food system and shifting systems, power, and ownership. We need to build leadership capacity so that people can develop solutions for their own communities. And in order to do that, we need land, we need resources, we need capital, we need access to infrastructure. So that's where I'm focusing a lot of my energy currently—partnering with BIPOC led organizations and shifting resources to get folks on the land and access to capital so we can build equitable and resilient regional food systems that build economic, cultural and political power within our own communities.

Resources for Advancing Racial and Social Justice in the Food System 

National Farm to School lists these helpful resources. If you haven't already, read their statement about racial justice by Executive Director Helen Dombalis. 

Also, Jamese recommends checking out this article on Linkedin: White-Led Organizations: Actions Speak Louder Than Words by Krystal Oriadha, Senior Director of Programs & Policy and Helen Dombalis, Executive Director, National Farm to School Network.

Additional resources suggested by the Vermont Farm to School Network:

*The Northeast Farm to School Institute is a unique, whole school professional development program developed by Vermont FEED, a partnership project of Shelburne Farms and  NOFA-VT. Since 2010, the Institute has helped over 100 schools and districts build enduring FTS programs that create a culture of wellness, improve food access, engage students and farmers, and strengthen local food systems.