Talking with Deborah Kane at the Vermont Farm to School Conference

Posted on December 21, 2016

Photo courtesy of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.

Nearly 250 Farm to School practitioners and advocates joined together at the Vermont Farm to School Conference in Fairlee, VT this past November to collectively partake in the effort to make Farm to School an even bigger part of Vermont’s school culture.  

The keynote speaker, Deborah Kane, USDA’s former National Farm to School Program Director, made the trip from Oregon to speak and see for herself why the rest of the country looks to Vermont’s Farm to School movement as a model. We had a chance to sit down with her to hear what’s inspiring her:

What are you seeing in Vermont’s Farm to School community that’s inspiring you?

I was aware of the strategic planning exercise that the statewide Vermont Farm to School Network is going through, and I’m really impressed by the level of depth, detail, and thoughtfulness that went into that. The process itself is interesting to observe, and now that you have your levers of change, I can’t wait to see how well they get executed.

It‘s always easy for places to talk about how they work as a network, or how they collaborate, or how they share strategies, but Vermont lives, eats, and breathes collaboration. And that’s evident in the strength of the relationships. I’ve observed networks with weak relationships, or networks with relationships that are still forming, versus Vermont, where the spokes of the network wheel are rock solid. That’s unique to Vermont.

I’m watching Vermont’s efforts on Universal Meals with a lot of interest.

Could you explain why you’re looking so closely at Universal Meals?

The cafeteria is one of the most neglected classrooms in the school. I love the analogy that we don’t think twice about getting every child a book, and we don’t think twice about making sure every kid has a seat on the school bus if they need it, so why are we splitting hairs about who eats what? We should all just be eating. It should be a fundamentally normal part of the school day that we all sit down to a beautiful common meal together. I just feel like we make the school meal programs, in many respects, more complicated than it needs to be. “Universal” really says it all — it just says, “come on kids, it’s time to eat!” [If “universal” was our mindset] that would elevate the status of the cafeteria and make it a fundamental part of the school day, as opposed to an afterthought.

What’s inspiring you or showing promise in innovation nationally right now?

We at USDA have always said that the whole lunch tray could be local, but the truth is people get started with fruits and vegetables: they’re iconic and can go easily on the salad bar. And then milk is usually the next step.

In regard to innovation, I’m watching the meats, grains, pulses, and legumes. Now, more and more, people have been working on these protein items. Until only a few years ago, people weren’t thinking about garbanzo beans, lentils, and quinoa, or that kids would be willing eat these things. That I am pretty excited about; we’re actually stepping into the reality of the entire tray being recognizable as from their region. The students know what it is, where it was produced, and not just wonder what that weird brown thing is on their plate

I’m also super excited about how, more and more,  young students are thinking that they might actually have a future in agriculture. You’re seeing more interest in ag as a career; a little more in colleges, but that’s because their high school had Farm to School programs, a school garden, urban plots, or something that even approximated an acre and looked like a farm. You’re seeing kids come back to agriculture, which I just think is crazy-great!

Thirdly, I’m excited about culinary professionals and chefs getting engaged. Culinary schools now teach foodservice-scaled classes. With the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, we had the professional standards provision, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, where are the schools going to find the staff that meets these new professional standards?” And the truth is all these culinary programs are graduating students that think working in a school cafeteria would be really awesome! There aren’t nights and weekends, and it’s a better environment. That is really exciting — it feels like the whole ship is legitimately turning and can keep going in the right direction.

The Vermont Farm to School Network is currently leading a campaign to expand Farm to School (FTS) in Vermont, which will allow more schools to participate in the program, increase participation in and sustainability of child nutrition programs in schools, and include childcare programs in Vermont Farm to School. Find out more about the campaign and how you can get involved here.