Gail Feenstra on National Farm to Cafeteria Conference

Our friend and colleague, Gail Feenstra, recently attended the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Austin, Texas. Gail is the Deputy Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) and the Food and Society Coordinator at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI), University of California. She was so excited and energized about the conference when she returned that we asked if we could interview her. Happily, she said yes. We hope you enjoy her insights and comments.

Ann and Georgeanne

  1. You are on the board of the National Farm to School organization. What is its purpose and what are the objectives of the national conference? When and where was the conference and what was its official name and theme?

The National Farm to School Network is an information, advocacy and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and preschools.   Farm to School empowers children and their families to make informed food choices while strengthening the local economy and the local agriculture and contributing to vibrant communities.  The 7th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference: Powering Up, took place in Austin, TX, April 15-18, 2014.  Its theme—Powering Up—was about coming together, over 1,100 strong, to share information, learn from one another, strengthen partnerships and collectively plan for the future.

  1. What was the “feel” of the conference? Were there unusual twists or sessions?

It was an electric event, full of energy and excitement.  The atmosphere was one of wanting to learn and share new ways of being part of the movement.  There were a lot of youth there this time; Food Corps held their annual meeting at the same venue.  It was great to share the youthful energy.  There were also a lot more sessions on social justice and communities of color—engaging a broader spectrum of our colleagues in urban and rural communities.

  1. There were some high powered, national figures who’ve played a significant role in changing food and agriculture in our country over the past 40 years, like Jim Hightower and Alice Waters. How did their message impact or shape the conference?

Jim Hightower provided a wonderful and humorous opening, using his quintessential Texas style and populist experience to talk to us about how to use our voices for food systems change.  Alice Waters ended the conference by contrasting “fast food values” vs. “slow food values,” reminding us of the place that school food has in imparting slow food values to our children.

  1. You’ve heard both speakers in the past, was there anything new in what they had to say, or more resonant today?

I was particularly drawn to Jim Hightower’s call to speak the truth to power.  He encouraged us to go with the BOLDEST agenda and say what we really want; be bold about our vision and wrap our ideas in the values of our culture, economic fairness and justice.  He said to “reach out and speak out.”  He also said that he recognized how hard it is in such a diverse coalition; however, “…to those who say you can’t herd cats, they’ve never tried a can opener.”    He said to persevere.  “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”  The NF2SN is ready to launch into new policy work in the next 5 years.  It was so good to hear his encouragement. Alice is always inspirational when it comes to reminding us about our deepest values that include the environment and how we can share the wonder of the earth with our children through food.

  1. What, if anything, made the conference different this year, in other words, were there any significant changes in what was discussed, or the approach, or in who attended, or a sense of progress made – new action items on the agenda?

As I mentioned above, the youth and people of color from African Americans in the South to First Nations people from the upper Midwest and Canada to New Mexico.  A lot of diversity this year.  Yes, there was a sense of progress.  It was great to hear from small school districts in Tulsa, Oklahoma, about the great work they are doing, alongside large cities like Los Angeles and New York City.

  1. What kind of food was served? Did it reflect the southern heritage of Austin, TX? Did you have BBQ? If so, what kind (pork or beef? Tomato or vinegar based?)

The best of southern was at the whole pig roast that the Southern region sponsored for whoever signed up, and we went out to dinner for Texas BBQ one night and tried both pork and beef. It was vinegar based.

  1. Did you meet and interact with people from other regions around the country? What are they serving in their cafeterias? How are they approaching farm to school any differently?

Yes.  A lot of the discussion was on process vs. what exact foods were served.  A lot of fresh, regional produce (collards in the south; fresh peas in Washington, beans in the Southwest).  Approaches are similar.  Partnerships are key everywhere.  Some involve farmers markets.  A lot more talk about involving distributors in sourcing regionally.

  1. You created a session and chaired it. What was it on and did it go as you expected? Any surprises?

Our session was about building new partnerships outside of the typical school environment.  Dani Thomas of the Yolo Arts Council, for example, talked about the importance of the arts in building community connections in the food system.  The biggest surprise for me was how powerful the folks from The Delta Fresh Initiative were in describing how important social justice was and is in building their food system.  I’m now working with our national leaders to see if it might be possible to incorporate some new metrics around social justice into our national evaluation framework.

  1. People are always interested in whether or not there is more money on the horizon for making the changes they are involved in at the grass roots level? Is there?

Yes.  The USDA also held their annual grantee meeting at the conference.  We, on the Board, got to meet them during one of the breakout sessions.  So diverse and creative.  I talked at length with folks in Arizona who are creating school gardens with very little water, in one of the poorest districts in the state.  The folks at the University of Arizona are pretty amazing too.

  1. Reflecting on the conference, are there any changes the board will make for next year? Where and when will it be held?

The Board has really become more organized over the last year.  We now have 4 workgroups.  I’m in the one on Strategic Planning.  The communications for the NF2SN have really improved.  There is a new website and materials, new messaging.  We are building our policy capacity and our policy staff person will be pursuing several paths at the national level as well as building new coalitions.  We have a new development/fundraiser staff person who is doing a great job in outlining a plan for the future in which Board members will be involved.  I’m not sure about the location/date for the next Farm to Cafeteria conference.  No firm plans have been made.

Gail Feenstra, Food systems coordinator

UC Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program and

UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute

 Phone: 530-752-8408


SAREP website:

Mailing address: SAREP, 1 Shields Ave., University of California, Davis, CA 95616

Gail Feenstra is the Deputy Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) and the Food and Society Coordinator at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI), University of California.   SAREP/ASI’s Food Systems Program encourages the development of regional food systems that link farmers, consumers and communities.  Feenstra’s research and outreach has focused on farm-to-school and farm-to-institution evaluation in California and nationally, regional food system distribution, and values-based supply chains. She has also worked with communities and national groups to develop food system assessments that use food system indicators to show progress toward the group’s goals.  Feenstra has a doctorate in nutrition education from Teachers College, Columbia University with an emphasis in public health.


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