Alumni Take Their Experience to Capitol Hill

Rachel Spencer (1)
Rachel on her first day of service member orientation.

I became a FoodCorps service member, poised and ready to serve in schools connecting kids to healthy food, just as the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 was set to be implemented.

The act mandated more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and decreases in the sodium in school foods. At FoodCorps orientation I realized that my role in implementing these guidelines meant I’d be wrestling with food policy. As newly minted service members preparing to work in schools, we were tasked with getting kids to eat these new healthier lunches, and with collaborating with our school food service directors.

I had an idea in my head of what school food policy should have been. I was excited to serve in a time where federal policy supported the types of standards I thought made the most sense in schools. Interacting with the people in my school cafeteria quickly taught me how nuanced the implementation of new regulations can be. It turns out that there is a lot of space for challenges between policy on paper and implementation in real life. While I believed in the changes made by HHFKA of 2010, I started to wonder seriously about how to mitigate the challenges associated with them? How can we connect people in the field with the resources they need as our policies evolve?

FoodCorps training in Washington, DC on November 19, 2015.
FoodCorps training in Washington, DC on November 19, 2015.

Flash forward five years; this question remains on my mind. I am in Washington D.C. as a part of FoodCorps’ Alumni Policy Institute so I can share my boots on the ground service experience in Marshall, Arkansas to influence national policy change. I sit in Senator Boozman’s office, supposedly in the chair where the Senator himself sits, meeting with his staff member responsible for agricultural issues. We talk about farm to school programs and why they matter for kids in Arkansas, and why this latest round of Child Nutrition Reauthorization also matters toward that end. Drawing both from my time in the field and my time working across the state as a FoodCorps fellow, I point out that connecting kids with where their food comes from encourages them to eat healthier, and that Farm to School can increase access to healthy food. Issues like combating hunger and improving education are important for our state, so I try to frame the conversation in terms of food security and academic achievement. I learn that the Senator is passionate about summer feeding programs, talk briefly about how Farm to School can be a great fit with those programs (can we say zucchini?!), and make a mental note to follow up with some finite examples.

Days prior, a group of my FoodCorps peers had joined together from across the country in Washington D.C. for the first FoodCorps Alumni Policy Institute. Our purpose: to support standards for healthy school meals through Child Nutrition Reauthorization and educate our legislators about the impact of Farm to School programs in our states. We also learned how to be better advocates, studying the language and process of policy-making as well as how to best communicate a message when meeting with legislative staff. That training came in handy during my meetings on “the Hill.” Effectively communicating with elected officials is part art and part science. Our training helped us learn more about the rhythm of when to ask certain questions, and how to use the right language when asking.

The fact that there is still work to be done, is why I am thrilled to join a small cohort of my fellow alumni in advocating for school meals that are healthy for kids, farmers, and their communities.

As FoodCorps alumni we are uniquely suited to advocate for the smartest possible child nutrition policies, and educate our elected officials. As part of a national network of service members and farm to school practitioners, we have the big picture perspective of what can work across different communities across the country.  All the current service members out there will recall the list of prohibited AmeriCorps activities that includes “lobbying,” however after FoodCorps we are well positioned to advocate and educate our elected officials. We occupy this space because of two reasons: we have big-picture perspective and boot-on-the-ground knowledge knowledge rooted in our local service.

FoodCorps Alumni Policy Institute Participants in DC
FoodCorps Alumni Policy Institute Participants in DC

FoodCorps connects us all through powerful national and regional networks. If we seek it, as service members we can catch a glimpse of what Farm to School looks like in states across the nation, and broader insight into how our entire food system works. (Without FoodCorps, I would have had no idea that Oregon produces the most hazelnuts in the nation for export, or that there is actually quite a good reason New Jersey is called the Garden State.) In a big-picture policy world where the view is often from “3000 feet” that detailed knowledge matters. Recognizing that farm to school is a piece of a much larger food system puzzle is important. But, with 1700-3400 hours of direct service under our belts, we also possess deep hands-on local knowledge of what it looks like day to day to put these policies into practice.

And yet, during one of my Hill visits, the staff member I was meeting with said “we just want to know how these programs impact Arkansans; that’s what most important to us.” Because we’ve been boots on the ground in each of our states as service members, and as fellows, we know what that insight means in reality. We know what it is to have conversations with food service directors as they implement new fruit and vegetable serving regulations, or wrestling with new sodium standards. We know the power of connecting kids to their foods, whether it is through school gardens or events where local farmers become school-food celebrities. We get to see first hand what matters for our communities and our states. And that is very powerful.

Walking out of my meetings on the Hill that day into the D.C. sunshine, I felt immensely privileged to tap into that power by sharing those types of lessons and moments with my elected officials. Even though on January 20th of this year the Senate Ag committee voted unanimously to send a draft of the “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016,” —which includes a doubling of USDA Farm to School grant funds, to the full Senate—there are still many steps left before this new Act goes into effect, and opportunities for it to change along the way. The fact that there is still work to be done, is why I am thrilled to join a small cohort of my fellow alumni in advocating for school meals that are healthy for kids, farmers, and their communities.