WITH JEAN RAGALIE-CARR, RDN, LDN, FAND AND CAMELLIA PATEY, RDN, LDN, SNS FARM TO TABLE Why it’s important to start thoughtful, new conversations about farm to table—and table to farm—in your community. Does it seem like everyone is talking about the “farm to table” concept—but not always meaning the same thing? For most School Nutrition readers, “farm to table” tends to have a somewhat literal definition: Use food from local growers in the preparation of school meals. But it’s also an educational concept intended to help students (and adults) understand where food comes from, as well as the importance of supporting sustainable farming practices and a sustainable agriculture industry. In fact, new conversations are on the rise in both individual households and capitol corridors—and hunger, nutrition, agriculture and sustainability are no longer separate topics. As nutrition and wellness professionals, all of us need to do more to boost awareness about how agriculture and sustainability are intricately connected to nutrition and health. A sustainable food system is about community vitality, conservation of natural resources, alleviation of hunger and much more. Students and their parents want to know more about these connections. What can you do to help start these conversations in your community? School Nutrition turned to leaders from the National Dairy Council (NDC) for some suggested direction. After all, NDC, representing America’s 51,000 dairy farmers, has championed the health and well-being of children for the past 100 years, providing science-based nutrition research and education to underwrite a healthier tomorrow. SN checked in with two longtime leaders at NDC: President Jean Ragalie-Carr and Vice President of Nutrition Affairs for School Wellness Partnerships Camellia Patey. SN: When it comes to school meals, the nutrition aspect has been the focal point of conversations for quite a long time. Why is it important to now include agriculture and sustainability in those bigger-picture discussions about the role and future of school meals? Jean Ragalie-Carr: Of course, giving students access to healthy foods and encouraging them to make nutritious choices, including great-tasting, wholesome milk products, remains an important goal. However, we have limited natural resources to produce those healthy foods. Did you know that only one-fifth of U.S. land is used for farming? In spite of increases in population—and subsequently for food—that amount of land isn’t increasing, so we need to take care of it. Dairy farmers are committed to preserving the land where they live and work, as well as protecting the air and water shared with their neighbors. We all need to do the same in our communities. SN: What is one of the greatest challenges facing today’s farmers in terms of sustainability? Ragalie-Carr: The demand for food continues to increase as the population increases. By 2050, the world’s population is projected to expand to more than 9 billion people, requiring 70% more food. How do you dramatically increase production—but do so in a sustainable way, growing more nutrient-rich foods that nurture both healthy people and a healthy planet? Farming is a biological system, and we know we will have to increase yields to feed the future, as well as optimize all that nature has provided. SN: What has the dairy industry done to improve production efficiency while caring for the environment? Ragalie-Carr: The dairy community is continuously working to reduce its environmental impact through improved packaging, reduced energy and water use and the development of renewable energy, among other steps. Eight years ago, more than 250 U.S. dairy farmers, processors and other dairy stakeholders came together and pledged to be leaders in sustainability, striving to provide nutritious dairy foods in a manner that makes farmers, food companies, people and the planet better—economically, environmentally and socially. Fast forward to 2015, and this group has held fast to that commitment. Improved breeding, along with the development and adoption of new management practices and technologies have yielded increased productivity and dramatic improvements in natural resource use. Compared with 1944, American dairy farmers now produce a gallon of milk using 90% less land and 65% less water, leaving behind 75% less manure and a 63% smaller carbon footprint. In fact, the latest research shows that the U.S. dairy community accounts for only about 3% of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—and the industry has voluntarily committed to reducing its total GHG emissions by 25% by 2020. SN: There are some who have negative presumptions about animal farming in America today. Could you speak to the veracity of these? Ragalie-Carr: There are a lot of misconceptions, and I think that many of these myths arise because the majority of our population is so removed from farming. They don’t know that farm to table story—they just hear sound bites about individual and isolated situations that cast a negative light on the entire industry. SN: Not unlike how one poorly managed school cafeteria can affect the reputation of the whole school nutrition profession, right? Camellia Patey: Exactly. It is critical to look at the entire picture in order to separate fact from fiction. SN: Here’s one misconception: Cows are mistreated. Ragalie-Carr: America’s dairy farmers have a long history of providing the highest level of animal care. By nature, cows are very habitual, so the better controlled their environment is, the more relaxed and comfortable they are and the more milk they will give. The vast majority of dairy farmers apply best management practices— like the national Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) animal care program—to ensure their cows are well cared for. This includes providing them with a nutritious diet, plenty of water, well-ventilated and well-lit barns and veterinary care. FARM is a three-part program. Farmers follow animal care guidelines that regularly evolve based on the latest research. Farmer evaluation and feedback is another area. And there is a third-party verification process that these practices are being followed, which is completed by outside experts. Dairy farmers enrolled in the FARM program produce 91% of the U.S. milk supply. I also want to address a few practices that take place on dairy farms, which may generate questions when they are taken out of context. For example, calves are separated from their mothers after they’re born. Some may view this as cruel, but there are practical reasons for this on a commercial dairy farm. A calf weighs 80-100 pounds at birth, while its mother weighs about 1,500 pounds. Placing these animals in the same space could cause collisions and injuries. In addition, if left with the mother, the calf may not get nursed soon enough and the passive antibodies that get the calf off to its best possible start might be lost. Some suggest that dairy cows are overworked. But did you know that cows are milked for about five minutes at a time? And they are milked just two to three times a day? The rest of the day they are eating, drinking, walking or resting. I’ve heard concerns that the milking machine might be painful for the cows. While the outer shell is stainless steel, inside is rubber inflation, which gently squeezes the cows’ udders. It milks the same every time, so the cow learns what to expect. If a cow was solely milked by human hands, it could vary quite a bit! I encourage your readers to learn more about dairy farming and animal management by visiting www.dairygood.org and viewing the “Udder Truth” video series. SN: What about concerns that antibiotics given to sick cows are transferred to their milk? Ragalie-Carr: Overall, cows are carefully monitored to identify, separate and treat if they fall ill. But readers may have more peace of mind to know that it is actually against the law to sell milk with antibiotics in it! There are huge fines that are assessed if this is discovered, and if it happens more than once, the farmer loses the license to sell milk. As milk makes its way from the farm to the table, it is carefully monitored— it’s tested nine times before it gets to the consumer to ensure there are no antibiotics present. SN: There’s another misconception about the death of the “ family farm” and that most commercially available products come from big, bad corporations. Ragalie-Carr: Whether large or small, 97% of U.S. dairy farms are family-owned—in fact, they typically have been in those families for multiple generations. Dairy farmers are stewards of their land. After all, it’s in their own best interest to continually improve their farming practices to help ensure that soil remains healthy, while water and air remain clean for generations to come. SN: So far, we’ve focused on the source of the foods that come to our tables—let’s take a look at another factor that challenges the sustainability of our food system: waste. Ragalie-Carr: Today, one-third of the food produced in this country is wasted. In fact, the average consumer wastes 1.1 pounds of food every day! This translates to 401.5 pounds per person each year. Annual food waste from an average family of four adds up to 1,606 pounds. In 2008, food waste accounted for a lost retail value of $166 billion, with disposal costs adding another billion dollars in local taxes per year. To put this in perspective, food waste has four times the impact on the environment than that of all buses and trains! In fact, if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of GHG, after the United States and China. Considering the fact that one in six Americans suffer food insecurity for at least part of the year, eliminating food waste is a moral issue to address, especially as we face the need to produce more food for our growing population. If just one family of four reduced portion sizes and took other steps to eliminate food waste by 25%, in one year that would save the equivalent of 1,314 meals—meals that could be donated to those less fortunate in the community. Reducing food waste is a first critical step that all of us can work together to tackle. SN: How can our readers play a role in eliminating waste? Patey: Schools are the perfect environment for students to see and understand the scope of food waste, by just paying attention to what they throw away every day and making more mindful decisions about what they will take. Share this message with students to raise their awareness about the impact that food waste has on the sustainability of our supply. In addition, there are steps that your readers should be taking behind the scenes, too. Be sure to purchase appropriate quantities and buy the appropriate quality for the intended purpose. Store products at the proper temperature. Follow standardized recipes, weighing and measuring all ingredients. Use all edible portions of food items; scrape all food from the mixing bowl! Monitor portion control at the point of service and find creative ways to incorporate leftovers. The school cafeteria is where science, all of your readers and our nation’s farmers can come together. School nutrition professionals are the appropriate leaders in this effort—you are serving meals that provide children with the nutrition that research has determined they need for health, using foods that provide that nutrition, which are produced in a pragmatic and sustainable way that will allow our country to continue to meet the food needs of the next generation. SN: Let’s end by going back to the beginning. How can readers bring the “ farm to table” concept to life for their students, beyond the ingredients they use in school meals? And why should they make this effort? Patey: Team up with different stakeholder groups in your school and community to share details about the benefits of eating nutrient-rich, farm-raised foods—including dairy!—from your area. In the Fuel Up to Play 60 Playbook, there is a “play”—an activity—for engaging kids in understanding farm to school principles. I also recommend you check out USDA’s Farm to School program (www.fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool) for a variety of resources (including grants!) to procure local foods and develop educational activities. And, of course, another excellent support in your area is your local Dairy Council. Contact them to help create a plan, find and invite farmers to your school, arrange a visit to a dairy farm or present at your state association conference. When we talk about the future health of our people, our communities and our planet, including students in those conversations is paramount. They need to be part of the effort of making sustainability the 360-degree cycle it should be—a cycle that considers the roles of both farm to table, as well as table back to farm. Jean Ragalie-Carr is president of the National Dairy Council (NDC). Follow her on Twitter @JeanRagalieRD. Camellia Patey is NDC’s vice president of Nutrition Affairs for School Wellness Partnerships. Photography by jiunlimited.com.
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