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Detroit Farm to School Conference Set For May

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Detroit conference will emphasize need for farm to school programs like this one in Traverse City which uses locally grown produce in school lunches.

Michigan is set to hear from some of the leading innovators of farm to school programs in the country during the Taking Root: National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Detroit in May.  And that’s not all.

The conference also is shaping up to be an important forum on potential policy change at the federal level that could put farm to school programs solidly in the Obama administration’s child nutrition and obesity prevention efforts.

Registration for the May 17-19 conference ends soon-Friday, April 30.

For special lower cost lodging, click here.

The keynote speaker is Kathleen Merrigan, the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture for the U.S. Department of Agriculture-i.e., second-in-command at this key, $134 billion agency that oversees the nation’s school lunch program.

And priorities for the National School Lunch program-including funding school lunches at a high enough level for food service directors to serve healthier food-is at the core of Congressional decision-making right now with the pending reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act (CNR).

Learn more about action alerts to include $50 million in CNR to help schools build farm to school programs; close to$10 billion in funding for CNR programs overall (compared to $4.5 billion approved in the Senate Agriculture Committee); and to make sure these funds aren’t taken from the hides of other important programs for low-income families, farmers, and the environment. USDA also just announced a proposed “geographic preference” rule that, if adopted, would allow schools to give extra points to locally grown foods when deciding which food to buy and which vendors to use. And farm to school made it to the top recommendations of a recent White House Childhood Obesity Summit.

Not just for policy wonks
So-the national farm to cafeteria conference is taking place against a historically important policy backdrop. ButTaking Root isn’t just for policy wonks.

It’s the place to be for those who want to know how to galvanize not only their local school, but also their local college, hospital, or prison system to purchase locally grown foods. Or for farmers wondering how to meet the demand of the growing school market.  Or community leaders interested in the real-life impact farm to school can have on local food economies. It draws from the experiences of more than 2,000 farm to school programs that now are up and running across the country, up from just 400 a few years ago and two known programs 10 years ago.

Food service directors will learn practical tools for marketing, menu planning, food preparation, and purchasing fresh and locally grown foods. Teachers will learn how to add school gardens and student farms to curriculum and vocational training. And administrators will learn research results and evaluation strategies to measure the effectiveness of farm to school programs.

Among those leading workshops is Anthony Geraci, the dynamic food service director for Baltimore City Public Schools whose passion was evident when he spoke before Congress earlier this year promoting farm-to-school legislation. He spends nearly $1.5 million on Maryland-grown produce every year to serve meals to 83,000 kids a day and created the district’s Great Kids Farm, the topic of his workshop.  Another is Ann Cooper, who’s cheerfully and fiercely embraced the title that the national media gave her of Renegade Lunch Lady. She has now co-developed The Lunchbox Web toolkit and has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Time Magazine for such work as transforming the 17-school public school system in Berkeley, Calif., from 95 percent processed foods to 95 percent scratch cooking.

And there are plenty of innovators leading workshops at the conference who’ve not become the media darlings that Mr. Geraci and Ms. Cooper have become, but have built strong track records in such diverse locales as Vermont, Iowa, North Carolina, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, and Canada. Michigan farm to school efforts will be in the spotlight as well, with workshop presentations that include the Glen Lake, Frankfort-Elberta, Benzie County Central, Manistee, Detroit, Springport, and Charlotte public school systems.

All of these workshops and speeches are on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 18-19. But, there’s a smorgasbord of other activities on Sunday and Monday, too, each with their own special fees. They include more intensive short courses on specific topics and field trips to see Detroit’s flourishing urban garden movement, local foods distribution to Detroit schools, community gardens in Flint, and MSU’s student organic farm; networking time with farm-to-school proponents from throughout the Great Lakes region; and a Detroit Tigers game against the Boston Red Sox, where the conference and local foods effort will be center stage in the stadium lights.

Now, does that sound like a good time, or what?

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist for agriculture, including farm to school programming, at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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