As important as Michelle Obama's arms are to news reporters, the children helping plant and maintain the White House vegetable garden have an even more compelling story. They may be planting democracy along with carrots and lettuce.
At the Northeast Farm-to-School conference last week, children, teachers, farmers and school food administrators described every kind of project imaginable linking children directly with food production.
In Baltimore, the new head of food services for the 85,000-child school system, Tony Geraci, began serving peaches from a local orchard -- and saved money. He now serves many fresh vegetables from local farmers but also helps children grow their own food. With parents and family volunteers -- and a small herd of goats -- Geraci has cleared land around an old orphanage that belongs to the school district and started a greenhouse and 33-acre Great Kids Farm, growing seedlings for school gardens across the city.
In Ferrisburgh, Vt., I visited a school garden that has grown from a few herbs three years ago to a robust, full-spectrum garden, powered by students and parent volunteers. Kathy Anderson, the school's food service manager, enlisted our group in a typical in-school cooking exercise, making fresh salsa, applesauce, and butternut squash pureed with butter for our afternoon snack. She says that when the children make pesto, almost every child tries it, and many want more. On the wall are photos children brought in of new vegetables they've tried.
We visited a nearby farm that sells food to the Ferrisburgh school. The local economic development stemming from farm-to-school programs was unmistakable. Sometimes, as with Tony Geraci's peaches, it's cheaper to buy local food. But if extra preparation is required, labor costs can rise. One Vermont school holds a fundraising dinner to cover the difference. Others buy food processing equipment to reduce labor costs. Kathy Anderson saves money when parents "plant a row for the school" and help with basic processing.
For snacks one afternoon, conference attendees enjoyed food prepared by children -- a root vegetable cheddar soup served by one school, ginger bread made by another, and fruit smoothies made with pedal power in a blender on the back fender of a bicycle.
Williamsburg, Mass., students Maya and Rosa and others showed photos they had taken of activities in their Fertile Ground program. While gardening and learning about healthy nutrition, they also practiced making presentations. Similarly, after Baltimore's students shared their usual fare with school administrators, Geraci began to gain support for his menu and program changes.
How better to teach students democracy than helping them influence policymakers themselves? After hearing so many inspiring stories from children, I begin to believe there must be anti-cynicism agents bred into tomatoes and carrots.
This summer, Congress will begin reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, which covers school breakfast, lunch and snack programs. Advocates hope to see $50 million a year in funding for farm-to-school programs. If Congress is listening, members cannot fail to hear the roar of excitement as children, parents, farmers, and school administrators build synergies in schools around good nutrition, local food and child empowerment. The arms of those players may not generate articles in fashion magazines as Michelle Obama's do, but when they're linked together, they make a powerful and exciting story of positive change. Farm-to-school programs are a brilliant investment of scarce government dollars.