By Sabrina Krebs
Anupama Joshi is the co-founder and executive director of the National Farm to School Network, a project of the Tides Center. Since the early 2000s, she has been a leading force in the development of Farm to School projects across the nation, providing training and assistance for program development and evaluation, promoting networking opportunities, facilitating policy advocacy, and developing educational resources. Joshi previously worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Pesticide Action Network, and co-authored the book, Food Justice with Robert Gottlieb.
Food Policy Center (FPC): For more than two decades, you have worked on nutrition, agriculture and food systems issues both nationally and internationally. What are the most significant changes you have seen in these three areas since you first entered this space?
Anupama Joshi (AJ): I started my career in Asia where much of my training and discussions in the field were about undernutrition. When I came to the United States in 2001, I was surprised to hear about the rising rates of obesity, especially in children. Unfortunately, several developing countries are facing similar problems now, which speaks to the systemic issues in the food system – how and what kind of food is grown and distributed. There has been a growing understanding of organic food production, local and seasonal foods and associated benefits. The celebrity power of chefs and the rising popularity of cooking shows and competitions has put culinary arts and food at the center of everyday conversations. And not quite enough, but there is the start of a discourse about food justice and equitable access in the myriad ways food touches everyone.
FPC: The farm-to-school movement has grown from a handful of schools in the late 1990s to more than 40,000 schools in all fifty states, and strengthening local farm-to-school relationships across the country is crucial to the work of the National Farm to School Network. What challenges do you encounter when working at these different levels?
AJ: Changing the culture of food is the biggest challenge – in schools and in communities all across the United States. School food is under-funded, has a bad reputation, and is not an integral part of the business of schools – education! Hungry children cannot learn, so providing students access to healthy food should be a component of the student’s educational experience, yet the benefits of investing in a robust healthy school meal program are often overlooked and viewed as separate from the curriculum and teaching. Over the years, schools have lost the kitchen infrastructure to “cook” food. Most can only handle heat and serve options. Lunch break is at the most 20 minutes – not enough for a child to go through the lunch line, sit down and enjoy the meal. On the farm side, many small and medium sized farmers lack the processing capacity and transportation to supply to institutions such as schools, hence innovative solutions to pool product and resources are needed. Despite these challenges, farm to school s/heroes across the country are innovating and findings ways to serve healthier school meal options, set up school gardens, and engaging students in experiential food education – striving towards the triple win of farm to school – Students Win! Farmers Win! Communities Win!
FPC: In 2010, you co-authored the widely acclaimed book, Food Justice, which covered the emerging food justice movement’s aim to transform the American food system from seed to table. How does that book influence your current work with the National Farm to School Network?
AJ: As described in the book Food Justice, farm to school is a food justice strategy. The three core elements of farm to school provide opportunities to support equitable access to farm to school benefits for all: (1) Local food procurement provides access to healthier meals to more than 24 million students and supports income generation and land ownership for marginalized farmers (2) School gardens offer opportunities for students to develop a sense of responsibility and connection to their community, as well as foster engagement and partnership through those connections outside the school setting (3) Education about food and farming is a proven approach to elevating the value of local agriculture and lifting up under-represented stakeholders in the food system. The National Farm to School Network is committed to advancing food justice and equity and addressing disparities in the access to the benefits of farm to school. As a national leadership organization, we hold significant potential to shape the narrative by making equity a central tenet of our organizational programming, partnerships and policies.
FPC: You mentioned that “the [farm to institution] concept has become much more institutionalized in the United States as we’ve seen significant policy gains at the federal and state levels.” How effective have these policies been in practice? What are some policy challenges that farm-to-school programs face today?
AJ: In 2010, National Farm to School Network and partners successfully advocated for $5 million in farm to school grants. The demand for these grant program is five times more than the available dollars yet the impact so far has been tremendous – from 2013-2017, funded projects reached approximately 29,355 schools and engaged an estimated 13 million students. The existence of the grant program has established dedicated national and regional staffing for farm to school within the United States Department of Agriculture. Simultaneously, as of 2017, 46 states have farm to school supportive policies further institutionalizing farm to school efforts through state departments of agriculture, education, health and extension.
FPC: Which communities or demographics have been the most challenging to reach when developing farm-to-school relationships, and why?
AJ: Farm to school is not a one-size-fits-all model, so each community is unique in their interpretation based on their own needs and resources. Due to this, farm to school is implemented in school districts of all sizes and types; and in urban, rural and suburban communities, and each one of them faces challenges unique to their environment and situation. In our partnership with Native communities, we have found significant challenges to farm to school access and implementation.
FPC: In 2008, you co-authored the report, “Do Farm-to-School Programs Make a Difference? Findings and Future Research Needs,” in which you analyzed current research and discussed future research needs including the role of school food services and teachers. You also identified a causal relationship between farm-to-school programs and dietary changes in students and supply issues. Ten years later, have these research needs been met? And are they effectively informing and influencing behavior change? In the report is how “policy contributions to institutional change can be fairly clear, but their influences on individual behavior change are indirect at best.” How would you recommend going about increasing engagement on an individual level? Does this come from better policy implementation or restructuring the policies themselves?
AJ: Farm to school is still a fairly new model and hence there still are substantial research gaps in the field. In my opinion, policy changes are essential for changing the systems in which individuals operate and behave, and to ensure that changes are sustained. Policy changes should be informed by the community so there are opportunities for individuals to buy into the proposals. This also provides a feedback loop for restructuring if policy implementation is not meeting the intended goals.
Grew up in: New Delhi, India
City or town you call home: Cary, North Carolina
Job title: Executive Director & Co-Founder
Background and education: MS, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda (India)
One word you would use to describe our food system: Complex
Your food policy hero: Sen. Patrick Leahy (a staunch farm to school supporter)
Your breakfast this morning: Oatmeal with nuts, berries, chia and flax seed
Favorite food: I have not met a food I did not like, I love all kinds of cuisines and foods 🙂
Favorite last meal on Earth: Cooked by my mom
Favorite food hangout: My kitchen, with family and friends
Food policy social media must follow: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition