As important as Michelle Obama's arms are to
news reporters, the children helping plant and maintain the White
House vegetable garden have an even more compelling story. They may
be planting democracy along with carrots and lettuce.
At the Northeast Farm-to-School conference last week, children,
teachers, farmers and school food administrators described every
kind of project imaginable linking children directly with food
In Baltimore, the new head of food services for the 85,000-child
school system, Tony Geraci, began serving peaches from a local
orchard -- and saved money. He now serves many fresh vegetables
from local farmers but also helps children grow their own food.
With parents and family volunteers -- and a small herd of goats --
Geraci has cleared land around an old orphanage that belongs to the
school district and started a greenhouse and 33-acre Great Kids
Farm, growing seedlings for school gardens across the city.
In Ferrisburgh, Vt., I visited a school garden that has grown from
a few herbs three years ago to a robust, full-spectrum garden,
powered by students and parent volunteers. Kathy Anderson, the
school's food service manager, enlisted our group in a typical
in-school cooking exercise, making fresh salsa, applesauce, and
butternut squash pureed with butter for our afternoon snack. She
says that when the children make pesto, almost every child tries
it, and many want more. On the wall are photos children brought in
of new vegetables they've tried.
We visited a nearby farm that sells food to the Ferrisburgh school.
The local economic development stemming from farm-to-school
programs was unmistakable. Sometimes, as with Tony Geraci's
peaches, it's cheaper to buy local food. But if extra preparation
is required, labor costs can rise. One Vermont school holds a
fundraising dinner to cover the difference. Others buy food
processing equipment to reduce labor costs. Kathy Anderson saves
money when parents "plant a row for the school" and help with basic
For snacks one afternoon, conference attendees enjoyed food
prepared by children -- a root vegetable cheddar soup served by one
school, ginger bread made by another, and fruit smoothies made with
pedal power in a blender on the back fender of a bicycle.
Williamsburg, Mass., students Maya and Rosa and others showed
photos they had taken of activities in their Fertile Ground
program. While gardening and learning about healthy nutrition, they
also practiced making presentations. Similarly, after Baltimore's
students shared their usual fare with school administrators, Geraci
began to gain support for his menu and program changes.
How better to teach students democracy than helping them influence
policymakers themselves? After hearing so many inspiring stories
from children, I begin to believe there must be anti-cynicism
agents bred into tomatoes and carrots.
This summer, Congress will begin reauthorizing the Child Nutrition
Act, which covers school breakfast, lunch and snack programs.
Advocates hope to see $50 million a year in funding for
farm-to-school programs. If Congress is listening, members cannot
fail to hear the roar of excitement as children, parents, farmers,
and school administrators build synergies in schools around good
nutrition, local food and child empowerment. The arms of those
players may not generate articles in fashion magazines as Michelle
Obama's do, but when they're linked together, they make a powerful
and exciting story of positive change. Farm-to-school programs are
a brilliant investment of scarce government dollars.