Last Friday, Sophia Cinnamon, our VISTA student, and I were pleased to join nearly 40 others in Montrose for the Farm to Cafeteria Conference put on by Carol Parker and the Valley Food Partnership. Elaine Brett of Slow Food Western Slope started us off with a quick overview of local food systems in the region. Progress is definitely being made, but there’s definitely more work to do.

I was privileged to moderate a session with Andy Nowak of Slow Food Denver. He’s the Project Director for Slow Food Denver’s Seed to Table School Food Program and has been instrumental in developing school and community gardens. They have gone from having four school gardens involved to now more than forty-five. He’s worked closely with Denver Public Schools and Denver Urban Gardens to really make a difference in the lives of students. Andy is a chef himself – has even made two trips to the White House as a Hall of Fame Chef with Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program. At the White House, he helped develop the Chefs Move to Schools Program.

One of the most innovative ideas he started was the development of Youth Farmers’ Markets. Now in 32 schools, the program is a model that has the students growing, organizing and selling fresh fruit and vegetables at their own market on school grounds. Imagine the flood of parents coming by to pick up their kids – and having the opportunity to pick up fresh goodies from the students for the dinner table. The markets have strong parental support, but the students do most of the work: harvesting, setting up the tent, making signs, handling transactions, talking to customers and cleaning up. He has also partnered with Denver Public Schools with their Food Learning Lab and helped source local foods for their cafeterias. He was an engaging and dynamic speaker and the eager listeners attending definitely wanted more. We were treated to a fantastic lunch thanks to Pine Cone Catering – nearly all local food – beef mushroom or butternut squash soup and other yummies. One thing about going to a local food gathering – we certainly eat well.

At the event, we also got to hear from Lyn Kathlene of Spark Policy Institute who has worked to make farm to school easier in the state through policy changes and action. Jeremy Wes, Nutrition Service Director, wowed us talking about how his Weld Country took from nothing local, nothing cooked from scratch to becoming a hub of food processing for lots of schools in their region. Everyone who spoke showed us some of the possibilities and shared the journeys that got farm to school (and cafeterias) really hopping in our state.

In the afternoon, we had some great interactions with one another as we played the roles of farmers/ranchers, school administration and concerned parents. It was an excellent exchange of ideas and a great way to more fully understand the challenges each party might face while trying to get more local food on  students’ lunch trays.

We are so blessed to have great agricultural lands and traditions on this side of the Rockies. The great folks in attendance are helping in so many ways to enhance local food production and consumption in our region. Huge thanks to all the organizers and presenters.

Look for more Farm to School happenings as EcoAction Partners takes on the challenge – whether through school greenhouses or by helping farmers and schools connect.

We’re happy to be involved in getting local foods on local forks!

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