Farms: Where Our Food Really Comes From
By Natalie Berkman
Community Food Systems intern, Mountain Roots
From their perch on the top fence rail, first graders watch closely as Kelli Parker leads an 800-pound cow to them, and then points out all the important parts – where the tenderloins, roast beef, and burgers come from and where the milk comes from. Later, the kids tromp and search through loose straw in the chicken trailers until one first grader calls out joyfully, “I found three eggs!” He displays them with reverence, as if he’s just found a treasure. And in a way, he has.
A major component of Mountain Roots’ Farm to School program is exposing kids to the power of small farms. Small farmers have the potential to redefine our food system by supplying food for the surrounding community and promoting self-sufficiency, community involvement, and decentralized food markets. Re-connecting our future generations to the land is essential if we want to bring change to our current food system.
That’s where Mountain Roots comes in. Mountain Roots takes kids on field trips to small farms in our valley and also helps source and deliver healthful, locally grown food from Colorado farms to school cafeterias.
The lessons a farm can teach are as bountiful as the curiosity and wonder of the children who come to visit. On the farm, classroom lessons about soil, life cycles, community, and storytelling come to life. Students form relationships with the people who grow their food and gain a deeper understanding of rural ways of life. Through the hands-on experiences of farm field trips, children explore new ideas, discover their own strengths, and awaken new interests.
Several groups this summer visited the top bar honeybee hives at the Chipeta Garden on Western’s campus. Kids donned bee suits to examine the honeycombs close up, learned how bees gather nectar and pollinate pants, and tasted sweet honey. On a recent field trip to Parker Pastures, middle schoolers got to help milk cows, feed ducks, and even watch a chicken lay an egg. “Wow…I didn’t know THAT’S how the egg came out of a chicken!” said one student. Visiting the very farms that some of their food comes from can have quite an impact. Owner Kelli Parker commented, “Children intrinsically have a ‘holistic’ perspective about their environment…they get it! Bill always asks at the end of our farm visits, ‘Who wants to grow up to be a rancher?’ and almost all hands go up. It’s very gratifying to be part of inspiring future generations.”
Children come away from farm field trips forever connected to local food and farms. Jonathan Houck, County Commissioner and Gunnison father of two, agrees— “Farm to School is important to me because it connects kids to their community. Gunnison County has a long-standing and proud agricultural history and it is good for our kids to support that and keep it going. Farm to school makes those relationships real and enduring.”
There’s a difference between knowing where your food comes from and actually seeing where your food comes from. Not only is this farm to school connection fun and feasible for kids, parents, and teachers, but it’s also pretty clear that farmers ‘dig’ it too. Jeff Schwartz of Delicious Orchards said, “Any experience kids have with local, organic food at a young age is empowering and good for them”. Mark Waltermire of Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss added, “The farm is new and exciting for kids. That’s why we keep doing farm field trips…so the kids can get an inkling of what their diet could be.”
We know that parents and educators want to see children eating more healthy, fresh foods in schools. And since small farms are struggling to survive, Farm to School has a role to play in creating new markets for small-to-midsized farmers. When Mountain Roots launched the Farm to School program in the 2010-11 school year, the first move was to connect Gunnison grass-fed beef producer Parker Pastures with the district food service program. The organization helped fund the purchase of up to 3,000 pounds of beef each year by bridging the gap between the price of commercial beef and the local grass-fed beef from Parker Pastures. As demand increased, schools needed to seek a larger producer. Today, 85% of the beef served in school meals is Colorado grass-fed beef.
Local and regional markets often provide farmers with a higher share of the food dollar, and money spent at a local business often continues to circulate within community, creating a multiplier effect and providing greater economic benefits to the area. Tim Austin of Austin Family Farms, who has sold farm fresh food to Gunnison County schools in the past, confirms, “Of course! We love selling to schools and we also benefit from having them as a market.” This relationship supports the very basic and obvious definition of farm-to-school.
So why isn’t every school lunch supplied by local farmers? There are a few barriers to this ideal—including distribution, scale of production, budget restrictions, and district priorities. Mark Waltermire of Thistle Whistle Farm explains, “We need more farmers, more education, and a cultural shift… it’s a long term effort.” With continued community support, Mountain Roots is prepared to scale up that effort, help remove these barriers through food system work, and stay on the forefront of progress by connecting more kids to farms and connecting more farms to our local schools.
All the pieces of a true farm-to-school connection are right in front of us— Tim Austin’s truck comes through our valley every week, and he says he would be “more than happy to drop off a few cases of food to schools… we’ve supplied some really good, pure foods to schools in the past. We’d love to see it happen again.”