Heather Nelson didn’t always set out to become a farm-to-school advocate.
Last summer, Nelson read the book "Food, Inc." every night as she rocked her newborn son, Rhonin, to sleep. The combination of learning about the negative aspects of American food production while nurturing her new baby was inspirational.
"The anecdotal style of the book was perfect for those rocking sessions," Nelson recalled. "I learned quite a bit about our corporate food system, but I literally felt chills all over my body when I read the section about farm-to-school programs. I knew, then and there, that it was something I wanted to become involved with."
So a few months after finishing Food, Inc., Nelson formed the Real Food Alliance (RFA), a nonprofit organization that aims to bring farm-to-school programs to public schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The new group is in the midst of a potential merger with two local organizations, theGleaning Network of Texas and Feed Texas First, to better support such initiatives.
Along with the merger, RFA is quickly making strides in bringing farm-to-school programs to area campuses, Nelson says. On June 9, the alliance will host a workshop with food service directors of 48 school districts in Northeast Texas to talk about beginning farm-to-school programs. RFA also is working with schools to plant gardens and building a community garden in Keller, Texas, where the nonprofit is based. The group also is helping volunteer instructors prepare for a series of educational classes about farm-to-school programs, which will be held this fall at local recreation centers.
But when Nelson first decided to get involved in farm-to-school issues, she didn’t imagine she’d be hosting workshops for dozens of school administrators or showing off her green thumb. She simply started at a place most moms would, by checking out the food options at the school where her 4-year-old son, Cael, was preparing to enroll.
Nelson recalls that she was appalled by what she found out. The school district had a contract with a big food management firm, which offered meals that were high in sodium, sugar and saturated fats and included very little fiber. There were no farm-to-school programs in the entire Dallas-Fort Worth area, she says. Even worse, former employees from the food distributor were working in new gigs related to school nutrition in the district, Nelson adds.
"I was floored," Nelson recalls.
Nelson contacted school nutrition officials, who told her that the meals technically met guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (The Inside Track notes that USDA is expected to soon finalize improved nutrition standards for school meals.)
"I decided that, if I was to be taken seriously, then I needed to do something," she says. "After much soul-searching and conversations with my fiancé, I decided to start my own organization.
And five months later, here I am."
Nelson, who also is working to earn a master’s degree in environmental anthropology, had no nonprofit experience when she began. She credits her fiancé, Jason Wiscarson, for helping start the alliance by designing the logo, creating the business cards and offering financial support. "I couldn’t have done it without him," she says.
Nelson is optimistic the farm-to-school movement will grow, pointing out that there are more than 2,000 communities across the country that have successfully implemented such programs.
"People should know that I’m a busy mom who simply has a mission: To make sure that as many local children as possible have access to our area’s farm fresh produce," Nelson says. "If I can find time to make a difference in my community’s food system, so can anyone."