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A Call to Action for Sen. Stabenow

Farm-to-school advocates ask her to sponsor innovative legislation

March 20, 2010 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Farm-to-school advocates want Michiganders to urge Senator Debbie Stabenow by March 22 to co-sponsor legislation that helps schools serve more healthy, local food to their students.
TRAVERSE CITY—A year ago I watched as U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) stood in the recently refurbished kitchen of an area school and listened to the proud food service director and superintendent talk about how they transformed their school’s lunches from mostly heat-and-serve food to nutritious, scratch-cooked meals with lots of fresh, locally grown food. These folks, at Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools, wanted her to see what’s possible and desirable for all school lunch programs across the nation.

Now it’s time to contact the senator and ask her to sponsor legislation that would help those other schools.

This is something many Michiganders probably support. Twice in the last month I’ve seen huge conference rooms packed with folks from around the state—including passionate health professionals, food service directors, and school administrators—who are determined to advance this positive way to improve both children’s health and local economic prosperity. I actually saw people at the second conference well up in tears over something the keynote speaker, Chef Anthony Geraci said.

Fast forward to today: Constituents are urging Senator Stabenow, an important member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to sign on to a bill that could significantly help schools, farms, and health advocates not only in Michigan, but also across the country. The bill supports major steps toward putting fresh local foods on school kids’ cafeteria plates—the place where a large percentage of children count on getting at least one good meal each day.

Senate Bill 3123, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), is called the Growing Farm to School Programs Act. He introduced it Tuesday, and national farm-to-school proponents say it is on a fast track to reaching the Senate Agriculture Committee, as a part of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, as early as Wednesday, March 24. That Act governs school lunches; Leahy’s bill provides $50 million in startup funds to local schools and districts, through competitive grants, for technical help in connecting with local farms for cost-effective purchases of their food.

However, there are no Michigan co-sponsors for this bill, even though interest in the issue is very high in our state.

For example:

  • Nearly 400 people from throughout the state traveled to Lansing last month, packing a Michigan Good Food Summit to work, as my MLUI colleague Patty Cantrell reported, on a set of policy priorities for local food and farming that would help build jobs, health, and hope, particularly in our rural and urban communities. People from around the state weighed in, helping to craft a Good Food Agenda,” or charter, that Michiganders can put in front of all those new people running for office.” Those policy priorities include farm-to-school support.

  • And nearly 400 people—school administrators, food service staff, teachers, parents, school board members, farmers, and health advocates—mostly from northwest Lower Michigan, packed our regional Setting the Table for Wellness farm-to-school conference last Monday, March 15 at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa to learn new tools for starting or expanding farm-to-school programs.

I was a lead organizer of that conference, and I was very struck by the large number of people in the health care community who came on board to support us. Sponsors included Munson Healthcare Regional Foundation, part of the parent organization of hospitals throughout northwest Michigan; Munson Medical Center, one of those hospitals; the Northern Michigan Diabetes Initiative; Benzie-Leelanau Health Department; Priority Healthcare; and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. We also attracted about 20 planning partners, including eight area school districts and our conference co-coordinator, Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, which provides healthy school resources to more than 50 districts in our region.

So lots of people who care about health really get what we are doing.

Our keynote speaker was Chef Geraci, the dynamic food service director from Baltimore City Public Schools, who spoke before Congress earlier this year promoting farm-to-school legislation. Tony told us about his Great Kids Farm, where students learn how food is grown and sell the greens and other produce they grow to area restaurants. He recounted his involvement with the district’s vocational culinary students, who are learning scratch cooking skills to prepare them for future jobs in his own school kitchens if they want them. He said he’s spending nearly $1.5 million on Maryland-grown produce every year to serve meals to 83,000 kids each day.

But one of the most riveting things he said came during the question and answer session. He revealed something quite personal—getting seriously injured in an accident, falling into a deep depression, and then eating, and eating, and eating to battle his blues. His weight ballooned; he became diabetic; he had to punch four to five injections of insulin into his stomach every day.

Then he became food service director at a New Hampshire school. One day the school nurse, who knew of his diabetes, asked him to talk with an 11-year-old boy with diabetes. The boy was in tears because his finger was so sore from all of the pokes for blood sugar tests that he could no longer grip a pencil.

The boy, Tony said, couldn’t understand why his life was so miserable, particularly when he thought he was doing everything he was supposed to do to be healthy. But when Tony talked to his family, he learned the boy ate sugary cereal and doughnuts for breakfast each morning and highly processed take-out fast food for other meals. His parents were both busy working, trying to make ends meet, and preparing only a couple meals a month at home.

“That kid had a disease that we as a nation thrust upon him,” Tony said. “His stomach was black and blue from constant injections. It hit home that I am a chef. And I know what food does to you. And I did this to myself.”

So Tony changed his diet and lifestyle and dedicated himself to helping to kids change theirs, too.

Two years ago, as a result of his lifestyle changes, he became both insulin- and drug-free.

“It’s completely reversible if you are willing to do the work,” he told me in an interview after the conference.

I had a feeling he wasn’t just taking about healthy eating and exercise. He was talking about the work of civic engagement, of working to make a difference.

That’s why I’m calling Senator Stabenow’s office now.

If you want to support the Leahy Farm to School bill, and see Senator Stabenow support this bill as well, please contact her office sometime between now and Monday at 202-224-4822. Ask to speak to the staffer working on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act to recommend that Ms. Stabenow co-sponsor the Growing Farm to School Programs Act, as well as full, $50 million funding to support Farm to School programs. That’s twice the $25 million funding that is being discussed in committee now, and every extra dollar is needed. You can also email Senator Stabenow at senator@stabenow.senate.gov.

And please, if you can, let me know if you do contact her, and what you say. We Michiganders working to promote farm-to-school program opportunities will track your comments.

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist for agriculture at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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