Rows of organic lettuce and potatoes stretched as far as the eye could see at Pinnacle Farms, our classroom for the day. Our Conscious Kitchen team was busy learning about experimental mulching techniques, water conservation, how hedgerows support native pollinators, and increasing organic soil matter through regenerative farming practices when a van pulled up to join us. Farmer Javier Zamora, owner of JSM Organics, got out alongside a group of Latine small organic farm owners, with whom we spent the next couple of hours. We were at what could have been a “master class” learning from Phil Foster, founder of Pinnacle Farms, an organic innovation pioneer in Hollister, California. Questions, jokes, and Spanish translations flew back and forth, as we had the chance to learn together about organic and regenerative farming techniques and the land on which we live, eat from, and source produce for our Conscious Kitchen school food program.
At the end of the hands-on educational tour, it was time for the next stop on our illuminating day. Over lunch with Javier and the group of organic farmers who he mentors, we hosted a conversation about how our team at Conscious Kitchen could support this group of organic farmers to help get their produce into the school food marketplace in surrounding counties, including our partner West Contra Costa Unified School District where we have increased organic procurement from zero to fifty percent in only one school year. Distributing goods to farmers’ markets, groceries and restaurants requires a lot of time, money, and resources for relatively low quantities of sales, which is why direct partnerships with school districts would be an incredible boost. The economics of this were of particular interest to farmers like Marsha of Oya Organics, whose farm is horizontally structured and profit shares among owners and new hires, who all work the organic fields together, and offer sliding-scale and produce gifts to those who self-identify as needing it.
At present, most of the fruits and vegetables grown in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties leave the local farms and travel great distances before reaching farmers markets, grocers and restaurants. Many of these farmers are passionate about organic agriculture because it also helps to ensure that their children have healthy food, like Farmer Celsa, who works 4 acres of organic land, yet whose 4 children are growing up in a world that she views as dangerously disconnected from the local organic food systems. We are compelled to ask: why is it that kids in regions with booming organic farms still receive food grown with conventional chemicals for school meals? This is one of the challenges that Conscious Kitchen addresses and the systems we seek to change, alongside local organic farmers, many of whom are parents themselves.
The majority of school kitchens lack the resources to wash, cut or process produce taken straight from the fields. Especially with labor shortages, food service teams — and directors, who oversee all purchasing for a district — are looking to purchase pre-washed and/or chopped or sliced produce. A farmer like Rigoberto may desire to sell his celery or romaine crop directly to a local school district, but he would first need a nearby certified and well-equipped facility in which to clean and slice his produce. Lack of the ability to process is a major barrier for small farmers to prepare their harvests for school dining halls or any other sizable food service operations.
But processing facilities are expensive, and certified organic ones not widely available in many regions of California. Farmer Maria Catalán, owner of Catalán Farms is a force in the local food scene, a farmworker-turned-farm owner and migrant and small farmer advocate, who has been processing foods in her home and seeking a commercial space. However, Maria wants to ensure that there is a market for what she grows and processes, including meeting the needs of school food service programs. This is where Conscious Kitchen comes in.
In order for a partnership between local organic small farmers and local school districts to work, there needs to be information sharing between both farmers and schools to match seasonal harvests with what the district kitchens and menus require. This synergy would guide farmers to plant varieties and quantities that will have a reliable local market, and ensure that districts can purchase what they need when they need it. Our team is currently working on such databases in various local food markets, including among these organic farmers in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties.
Next steps on our journey to empower, elevate and connect small and medium organic farms with the school systems include working with various farmers to create a formal collective, so that districts could buy from s single vendor. Implementing a cooperative model, as farms have done in places like California’s Capay Valley, would also allow for the sharing of costs for a processing and washing station down the line, as well as ease in applying for larger scale grants.
As the pieces of our plan get up and running, we will continue to work closely with farmers and schools to increase the amount of fresh, local, organic, seasonal and nutritious (FLOSN) foods that hard-working local organic BIPOC small farmers can sell into schools — starting when school begins this month and throughout the fall and coming year! We’ll be keeping you updated as we continue our journey, and hope to model what is possible with farm-to-school pipelines, local organic supply chains, and regenerative agricultural systems!