Cultivating relationships, connecting kids and schools back to real food

After farming abroad, followed by food co-operative work and community organizing around community gardening, Jeremy Andrews founded Sprout, an urban farm and food hub in late 2009. Sprout was seeded out of a desire to see the issues of food justice – not just food security, but healthy food security – paired with education and community involvement, especially youth involvement. Since its inception, Sprout has been changing the local food system one broken bit at a time.

When Sprout was formed, its starting goals were extensive – be a resource for a collective of community gardens, educate, increase access to healthy food for everyone, engage youth in the food system, create a backyard gardeners network, and create a food co-op. Three out of the five goals have already been achieved, and Andrews says that social media has essentially taken care of the backyard gardener's network.

Its list of accomplishments in the short years of its existence is impressive. Sprout began with a focus on community gardening, and with the help of one investor, who offered them several thousand dollars, Sprout chose to invest all of that into the dozen or so existing gardens around town. Each garden was given a couple of hundred dollars to invest in tools, seeds -- whatever they needed to get their garden off the ground or keep it moving.

From there, came workshops – like rain barrel workshops and kids teaching other kids how to garden. And soon after that came a mobile farmer's market, funded by Battle Creek Community Foundation, called Fresh on Wheels. At these mobile markets Sprout sells not only produce from the farm's 2 acre plot, but they also distribute food that they purchase from other local growers (usually within about a 100 mile-radius). 

The food hub, as they call it, consists of more than just a handful of community gardens – there are also larger, non-urban farms and small business enterprises that participate – farms like Bonemego, Understory, Green Gardens, and small food businesses like, Kaleamazoo Chips and Mamaleelu Coffee.

Getting Fresh Foods in Schools

Sprout's most impressive work, though, comes from what it is doing in school systems in and around Battle Creek. And Andrews says he couldn't do it without relationships – both within the farming and local food hub community and with what he calls, “Ambassadors” within the schools. It is within these relationships that the disconnection from the food system with kids and within schools is able to be slowly laced back together, one tiny stitch at a time.

Andrews is a foodie, but he still loves cookies. He says, “I look at (the obstacles) like a big cookie. I want to eat the whole cookie, but I can't possibly finish it before taking the first bite.” He understands how frustrating it can be to run up against the bureaucracy of large institutions, like school systems. That's why he chooses not to look at his work in that way. Instead, he takes it a bit at a time.

He looks at what connections he can make and what options seems exciting and do-able to those people he's formed relationships with. “Let me sell you carrots, kale, peppers... let us do that well,” he says, and then, he hopes, he'll grow it even further once those carrots and kale and peppers are making everyone happy.

Andrews says that the Ambassadors he works with are food service directors, teachers, parents, and administrators who are already champions with a shared goal of healthy foods in the schools. He says the most effective ambassadors for schools are the kids, themselves. When kids start advocating for themselves – when they start organizing around things they want to see at their school – that's not only effective, but it also teaches kids the value of questioning things, of what Andrews calls the value of not just being “obedient followers.”

The schools Sprout works with

At Lakeview High School, one of the schools that partners with Sprout, the students organized around getting composting in their cafeteria, and they were successful. Lakeview also has a hoop house garden and accompanying education with their Environmental Science class. Lakeview school district has also committed to purchasing food from Sprout for their food service department. 

Sprout's “in” with schools doesn't end with Lakeview, though, not by a long shot. Battle Creek Public Schools' food service department has committed to purchasing food from Sprout, and Marshall and Pennfield's food services already partner with them to provide fresh, local options to their students. 

Paul Yettaw is the food service director for Marshall Public Schools. He says, “Marshall started using Sprout in November. Sprout had a booth at the School Nutrition Association of Michigan conference held at the Kellogg Arena. We met after the conference to see the availability of products that work in the school meals program.” Since then, Marshall has purchased produce like apples, red and green peppers, squash, broccoli, celery, tomatoes and potatoes from Sprout.

“The students have enjoyed having fresh fruits and vegetables available daily,” Yettow says, “The parents are in favor of the school using local farmers. The quality and freshness of the products is an awesome benefit for the students.”

In addition to their work with school district's food services, Sprout is also doing lots of other cool and innovative things within local schools. You can find hoop house gardens at Battle Creek's Dudley Elementary, Lakeview High School, North Pennfield Elementary, and Pennfield High School. And several schools have an after-school market once a week, where students manage a farm-stand table in order to sell Sprout produce to parents. 

Small steps to take back a lost food connection

Sprout isn't unique in seeking to change the established norm of food-like products in school systems. In Kalamazoo, there is a group called Healthy Foods in Kalamazoo. It's a county-wide community advocacy effort to support socially just wellness initiatives, with an emphasis on healthy foods in schools. And the state of Michigan has a grant-based Farm-to-School initiative that centers around efforts to serve local foods in school and early childcare and education food programs.

What makes Sprout unique is its approach. “We're not getting rid of all processed foods in the world," Andrews acknowledges, (and based on his self-declared love of cookies, it seems like that might be an OK thing). Andrews says he believes in options. 

“I'm not going to go into a school system and tell them all they're doing wrong.... Yes, bureaucracy is involved, and there is a fight to be had.” But, Andrews says, “(The schools) are only doing what people are asking for at the grocery store every day.” It's about options, he says, and those options include making sure that, “I don't have to put garbage in my mouth.”

Andrews offers the reminder that what Sprout is doing – and, really, what anyone working to change food systems within institutions is doing – is  “something that humanity has forgotten and lost.” He's talking about the connection to food, but also, he continues to circle back to relationship-building, another lost art in a world of increasing disconnection. 

"There is no quick way to build relationships," he says. "There is no sort of cookie-cutter answer. We have to go and talk. We have to not know the right answers. The way that Sprout has made connections with schools – we're not experts. We're learning as we go."

The humility and honest realization of the many barriers seem to be the things that keep Andrews grounded in the big and slow work of systemic change. “Today there are lots of assessments – schedules are so compact, there's not enough time,” he says. So, how do you build relationships with people who don't have time? “Slowly, steadily, and patiently,” he insists. “Let's put our toe in the water.”

Andrews says he is available to consult with groups and organizations in the area that are struggling to get healthy foods into their schools. If you want to keep up with the growing list of what Sprout is offering – including a door-to-door produce delivery service beginning in May and its food policy work – check out its website. And you can check out the Facebook group, Healthy Foods in Kalamazoo Schools to stay up-to-date on its efforts.

Kathi Valeii is a writer, speaker, and activist living in Kalamazoo. She writes about gender-based oppression and full spectrum reproductive rights at her blog, birthanarchy.com.

Grants that help Urban Sprout grow
USDA
W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Battle Creek Community Foundation
United Way
Regional Prosperity initiative 
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