On Oct. 16 to 19, the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) held their annual national conference in Milwaukee. The CFSC works to bring justice, health and sustainability to our food systems. As a member of CFSC, I have been working to provide healthy food to local families through Wellspring, our organic farm, making it accessible to low-income families. Wellspring has additional goals of bringing farm-fresh food into local school meal programs and educating for better food choices. My interest in attending the conference revolved around the areas of “Farm to School” and “Community Gardens.” It was highly stimulating and encouraging to meet so many people who are successful in providing locally grown fresh food to school children and university students. In some cases, the students are directly in the growing, harvesting and preparing of food. It was also helpful to hear of the struggles and the obstacles we all have to overcome to revolutionize the food system and individual food choices. As attractive as it might seem to have our kids eating fresh salad from local growers every day, there are problems. First, many schools are not equipped with kitchens any more. Most food is prepared in a central kitchen and delivered to the school cafeterias. To cut down on the labor costs of cutting veggies and preparing meals, this food is usually already processed and ready to serve. Huge warehouses and food distributors handle this job. The delivery system from large purveyors is already in place — often with food from far-away regions. Getting food delivered from family farms in the quantity and consistent supply that schools need is a challenge most schools are not prepared to meet. Even if a processing and delivery system were in place, there are not enough farms in this region to provide even seasonal food to our schools. We need to preserve more of our agricultural acreage for food production and train more young people as sustainable farmers. Despite the challenges, some small and effective steps can be taken at this time. REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy) from Madison has initiated a Homegrown Lunch Project, as have other schools throughout the nation. REAP also does special food events in the schools. Farmers come and visit the children in the classrooms and give them a chance to taste and learn about fresh foods. Some classes visit local farms to see how food is grown. Academic standards within the school curriculum provide opportunities for nutrition education, study of ethnic and historical origins of food, and the growing of plant-based foods. Following these units of study, there is often a special meal in the cafeteria that reflects the area studied. With previous taste tests and allowing children to vote for their favorites, the fresh food served in the lunch room has met with great success. There is little or no waste. Children like to be involved and like choices. As the old adage says, “we tend to support what we help create.” Some schools are going even farther and turning asphalt parking areas into garden beds. The children plant in the spring, volunteer with their parents to tend the garden through the summer and harvest the food in the fall when they return to school. Some even erect little greenhouses to extend the season for cool crops into the winter. The Farm to School program in Madison has been working with three pilot schools for the past two years to bring them special food days, connecting the land and the lunchroom, thus expanding local farm markets and creating educational links between food and agriculture. The need for having farm fresh food already processed for food service personnel is being addressed by the Williamson Street Co-op in Madison. They are adding on a special kitchen for processing fresh food. Despite obstacles and problems, people across the country are finding creative ways to meet the needs of providing local, fresh organic produce to schools. In the process, new collaborative efforts are being born with win-win propositions for everyone involved. Another significant shift in accessing healthy food showed up in the urban planning track of the CFSC conference. Over the years, city planners thought of everything that might impact the lives of urban dwellers except the most vital part of life — accessible food. Now local planners are looking to find ways of growing a regional food economy. Planners can help find a center for distributing shares from Community Supported Agriculture farms. They can create year-round farmers’ markets for local foods, and encourage and support community gardens. Mayor Tom Barrett addressed these issues in his welcome address at the opening of the CFSC conference. There are many empty city lots that could be transformed into community gardens and become gathering places for neighbors to learn to grow food for their families. Some immigrant populations want to pass on their agricultural traditions to the next generation. Those who have already lost the connection to the land can reclaim their heritage by learning to produce their own food. Mentors are available to help. Empty lots could then become places of beauty, community interaction and economic support. The city needs to recognize the positive role that community gardens play in maintaining neighborhoods, and begin to seem them as a positive use of city owned properties. It should include community gardens in its comprehensive planning process mandated by Smart Growth for Wisconsin, the ambitious land use legislation enacted in 1999. The Common Council needs to address the zoning and long-term leasing of land so that gardeners can invest in improving their gardens without fear of losing their space in a year or two. It was an honor to have the Community Food Security Coalition hold its 10th anniversary conference in Milwaukee. May we be a fertile ground to bear the fruits of this grand meeting of people who love the earth, fresh food and a healthy, just and sustainable food system. Wellspring is now partnering with GreenSalad Organic Gardens in identifying low-income families who want to have an organic garden in their backyard or share a community garden with their neighbors. If you want a share of fresh organic vegetables and herbs delivered to your neighborhood, or if you want to intern as a gardener, call Wellspring at 262-675-6755. If you are interested in having an organic garden installed in your backyard or neighborhood, contact Jan Christensen, Director of GreenSalad Organic Gardens at 414-374-1972. Mary Ann Ihm runs Wellspring, a Community Supported Agriculture farm near Newburg, Wisconsin, which delivers organic food to Milwaukee 25 weeks of the year.
Mary Ann Ihm runs Wellspring, a Community Supported Agriculture farm near Newburg, Wisconsin, which delivers organic food to Milwaukee 25 weeks of the year.