By Beth Heller
You know those moments when clarity hits and you say, yes, this is it! Recently, while compiling a video showcase of the farm to school “wins” in our local community, we experienced such a moment. If you have a second, maybe you can watch these two pieces:
What’s so special about these videos? First, while they deal with traditional subjects – good nutrition and farming – the programs feature a quietly revolutionary re-think of how we feed our children and support our local farmers. Second, both highlight the work of young professionals who choose to work in the towns they grew up in. It’s a great example of how purpose and passion (see last week’s blog) can keep local talent engaged and connected to their communities.
When Live visited Suamico Elementary School last Spring to film a cafeteria taste-test sponsored by the student council, we met with Meghan Meyers, the School Nutrition Coordinator for the Howard-Suamico School District. Standing in the busy lunchroom surrounded by rowdy school kids, Meghan shared that she had eaten lunch at those same tables years ago. A passing teacher, recognizing Meghan from years back, confirmed this fact.
“After college I worked for a couple of years in Milwaukee,” Meghan shared, “but I missed the place where I grew up. I love being active and being outside, and that’s what life was about as a kid in Suamico. There’s so much to love here and I want to use my skills to make it even better.”
After a few post-college jobs, including the job of Community Initiatives Lead at Live54218 where she was immersed in Farm to School programming, Meghan’s unique skill set made her the perfect candidate for a district-level position within the Howard-Suamico School District. In this newly created role, her work centers around putting the healthiest possible food on school lunch trays and allows her to direct attention to her personal passions: locally grown food, school gardens and nutrition education.
“Working in a school district with institutional needs and processes has provided me with first hand experience of the challenges built into our current purchasing system. Forging relationships with local farmers is the first step in shifting away from a procurement process that is geared toward large food distribution companies.”
The small steps Meghan has been able to take, like the purchase of indoor garden growing tables and new equipment for processing fresh produce, represent a big shift in thinking. While many elements of our current school nutrition programming need to change to make local purchasing convenient and economical, Meghan represents a brand of new and innovative thinkers committed to maximizing dollars spent on local produce.
And change is occurring on the local food production front as well. Family farmer and entrepreneur Darren Vollmar, captured in the video above sharing his passion and knowledge of hydroponic farming, was actually a former student of the Altmayer Elementary classroom host teacher, Donell Bonetti. Vollmar works closely with the Unified District of De Pere, collaborating with classroom educators as well as the food service to educate students about ecologically beneficial farming strategies. His farm, Ledgeview Gardens, provides a standing order of seasonal, organic produce to the Unified School District of De Pere’s food service on a weekly basis.
He views his time in the classroom as part of his work on the farm.
“I hope they [the students] take home the desire to learn about agriculture, and the fact that not all agriculture is corn, soy and dairy. It’s kind of a thing,” says Vollmar, referring to the growing awareness among kids that they can help grow the food they eat.
It may seem like an overstatement to say what’s going on here is revolutionary, but we’re still going to say it. Both Meghan and Darren are changing the way things are done within our schools, by challenging the status quo on how and where schools purchase foods, and what food actually hits the lunch tray. And, they are representative of a new generation that strongly believes work done in a community should benefit that community.
That’s fertile ground for great things to come.