Insights by Goldie: Farm-to-cafeteria connections

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in February 2004

On a beautiful summer day a few years ago, everything changed for Vanessa Ruddy when a drunken, speeding driver struck a car she was in, killing her friend and leaving her clinging to life with severe injuries. She slowly regained her health and life moved on. After spending some time with her recently, I experienced Vanessa as a strong, quiet, intelligent woman, whose sheer will must have helped her heal, even as it helps direct her now.

Vanessa is not just a survivor, she’s a winner. And she’s determined to encourage others so that they can help make changes just as she has. But I’m ahead of the story.

In 2001, Vanessa discovered Lincoln Elementary, a good alternative elementary school near her Olympia, Washington home, and enrolled her son. But she was shocked from the first day to realize that such a progressive school — “they even were growing organic vegetables with the kids” — served the standard school lunch meals.

At home she makes it a priority to serve natural and organic foods, even on a single-parent’s limited income, because it is important. She made the best of the situation all year, wanting not to cause problems, but becoming more displeased. She mostly sent her son to school with a home-packed lunch, but kids like to eat what others have and that was tense.

Near the end of the school term, she happened to see on a form the words “District Child Nutrition Supervisor, Paul Flock” and a telephone number. It was not until a few days later that she got the nerve to make the call, still shaking. He was open and friendly and basically agreed when she said she thought the school lunches could be improved, at least by beginning to serve fresh and organic local produce, like a salad bar and fresh fruit. His openness to suggestion reassured her. He said, “Let’s talk about that some more. Give me a call.”

Soon school ended for the summer, busy weeks slipped into months, and it was September 2002. School was starting and she hadn’t called. She now felt more comfortable, made an appointment and went to discuss the situation in Paul Flock’s office. They discussed her concerns and suggestions, and she added that she believed many parents and teachers would agree.

“Paul just didn’t miss a beat,” she says. “He picked up a phone and called Charlie’s Produce,” which specializes in organic and local produce. Vanessa arranged meetings with Lincoln parents, teachers, community members and the school principal, bringing them together at Paul’s office. Just one month later the children and staff were happily eating fresh, local, organic vegetables. The daily dessert was dropped in favor of seasonal fresh organic fruits.

In October 2002, Lincoln Elementary became a pilot program for the Organic Choices salad bar. Today, 13 elementary schools in the Olympia School District participate, but not yet the high schools —although Vanessa may help change that too. Even just one or two parents, staff or community members could spearhead further action.

Vanessa Ruddy, here’s a very big “Thank you!” You took that first step for action. That’s always the most dreaded; a big hurdle that many never get over. Your approach helped catalyze and energize and encourage part of a “movement” — one that’s in full swing, all over the country; the reclaiming of our local and regional food system.

Vanessa is putting together a video of interviews and stories, which can be used as an organizing tool for others who want to help organize better foods for their schools. When it’s done, I’ll let you know in this column.

The 2002 Farm Bill includes several helpful changes. The bill includes language that “encourages” schools to purchase locally grown products. It also “directs” the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “encourage” all institutions that provide school foods to make “maximum use of locally grown produce.” As Vanessa found, it also may be fairly easy to include buying from organic farmers.

Also in this issue

News bites, February 2004

TV and vegetables, Nancy's Yogurt goes national, Egg prices skyrocket, and more