Doug Davis is the School Nutrition Director for Burlington, VT City Schools. He was named School Nutrition Association’s Director of the Year in 2010 and has grown one of the most successful farm to school programs in the country. In 2011, the Burlington School Food Project served over 100,000 pounds of locally grown food from 23 different farms. In addition to local and organic produce, beef, and chicken, the program also features hands-on cooking programs and farm field trips to help insure children’s preference for new, healthy foods.


Mr. Davis chatted with Georgia Organics staff about farm to school’s challenges, the importance of shaping how children see food, and why communities need to support their schools’ meal programs.


It’s not like food services directors aren’t flexible or anything like that, but with everything else that’s going on, as [farm to school] is one of the most important things that you all are doing, it’s not even in their top five. It’s not even in their top 10. They have to staff their buildings, they have to buy equipment. For us, as food service directors, if farm to school is a baseball game, food doesn’t even enter until the seventh inning. … As a group, food service directors want only to feed their children better. We’re often faced with daunting regulations and that sort of thing. You will not find a director who’s worth their weight in anything who just wants to do their job and go home. People are doing the job we’re doing because there are kids that are hungry, and that’s the end of the story.


The concerns … [are] food safety, portion control, time through the line, stuff that for the first five or six days of school are a real concern but for the other 175 you’d probably be fine. It’s just a matter of giving the kids an opportunity to exceed your expectations. And they will.


We know that just buying sweet potatoes from your favorite farmer is not going to change the way kids eat or schools buy food. Kids need to change their relationship with the food that’s coming in the door. … When we started in 2003, we thought kids knew more about food than it turned out that they did. Even in Vermont, where they walk by farms to get to school, the question was “Where does your food come from?” and the answer was “The supermarket.” We have to educate our kids about food systems and food, and what that means, before we send them off. And that’s not being done very well. … We do a good job of getting some kids ready for college, we do a good job of getting some kids ready for work, but I didn’t think that we were doing a good job of getting kids ready for life. The day after graduation, they’re going to wake up and they’re going to buy food. They might not use geometry again for a while, but they’re going to eat. So they’re going to go to the grocery store, and if we haven’t done our job right, they’re not going to be looking at the food in a way that perpetuates what it is we’re trying to teach them. That then becomes the next generation, and when the question comes up on their ballot, [letting land become a] Wal-Mart or farm, they’re going to say “Shoot, I can save two bucks on toothpaste, I’m going to put a Wal-Mart in here.”


If a school wants to buy from a local bagel company, to us, that’s local food. … Our goal around farm to school is creating relationships within our communities. So if that’s what that school can do, even if it’s a donut shop, the idea is to create lasting partnerships in the community so you’ve got more people supporting your program.


Assuming that everything just stays status quo, and school meals remain a grant-and-aid program, and everything is hunky-dory, I think farm to school will continue to grow because people are beginning to recognize that with the change in the weather patterns—you know, say it’s global warming, don’t say it’s global warming, whatever—we are certainly seeing more severe weather than we ever have before. It’s a reality that we are not going to be able to lean on the food system the way we have in the past. The food system is changing. And I think there are a lot of people who are at an age where they’re now having kids in school that are now becoming those passionate advocates because their kids are in school and they want to see food change. I think that’s going to propel a change that’s going to be positive.


I think that overall the new meal pattern does a lot more for farm to school than maybe people thought because of the additional vegetable categories and the addition of tofu, I think, changes some of the opportunities around vegetarian and vegan meals and I think that will open up some additional customers to this. Those customers might tend to be passionate as well about seeing fresh fruits and vegetables. I see communities recognizing that if they wish to have their agricultural heritage maintained and respected, they’re going to need to begin to create consumers that care and a voting body that cares. I do believe that kids aren’t given enough responsibility to protect their food system and that’s going to have to start changing. And I think it will start changing.


I presented to a fourth-grade class, gosh, two years ago, maybe three years ago, and I was talking to them about farms, and farms that had disappeared, and how when I moved to Vermont we had more cows than people and now we don’t and what does that mean. So I was talking to kids about a farm, Taft Corners in Williston, Vermont. So right now there’s a Best Buy there, there’s a Chili’s, a Longhorn Steakhouse, Home Depot, Toys R Us, they’re all right there. So we were talking about it, and I asked “Who’s ever been to Best Buy?” and everybody’s raising their hands, they’re hooting’ and hollerin’. And I said “Well who remembers when it was full of cows and it was still a dairy farm?” And the kids put their hands down and they had these sad faces. “What do you mean, it used to be a farm?” We can’t lose sight of the fact that they’re the ones that will someday be making those choices. Five or ten years from now, the kids who are in school right now eating this food are going to be the ones shaping what we’re facing.


Kids are now recognizing farmers on career day as being just as cool as firemen, and I think that’s really important. I think we need to get kids to the farms. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, for me, my mission around that is providing these fresh fruits and vegetables in the classroom every day for my kids with the hope that someday they’re in a supermarket with their mom and instead of buying two bags of Oreos, they buy one bag of apples and one bag of Oreos. Just pushing forward the idea that fruits and vegetables can be a viable snack choice, and it’s substantially cheaper than a bag of Oreos. … I think we take for granted that kids eat fruit, because many of them don’t. And they’re going to be your future funders, everything.


The kids that are in schools, in five years they’re going to be the people you’re trying to get to buy [organic] foods. More importantly, in five to ten years, they might be the people who are setting policy in your state. They’re going to be the people sitting on your zoning boards, your planning boards, running for the legislature. It’s really important that your message is clear and that it’s always at the forefront: that you want to protect your farms, you want to protect your land, you want to protect your farmers.