Deborah Kane

Prior to her appointment to National Director of Farm to School with the USDA in 2012, Deborah Kane was vice president of food and farms at Ecotrust in Portland, Oregon; she was publisher of Edible Portland magazine; and she launched FoodHub, an online marketplace that connects foodservice buyers with sellers of regionally grown food. The magazine Fast Company named FoodHub one of its “Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Food,” and they named Deborah one of its “10 Most Inspiring People in Sustainable Food.” And all this is only what she’s done since 2005!

Deborah is an inspiration, and farm to school is such an important program to support. Please enjoy this week’s show!

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USDA Farm to School: Get national and state farm to school statistics, a guide to procuring local foods, videos, webinars and other resources.

Farm to School Grant Program: Visit this page for information on farm to school grants and how to apply.

Transcript: Interview with Deborah Kane

July 20, 2015

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Welcome back to Rootstock Radio. I am very honored today to be speaking with Deborah Kane, who was appointed USDA’s national director of Farm to School in 2012. She’s one busy person, because she oversees a new Farm to School Grant Program and continues to look for creative ways to increase access to healthy local foods for schools. Welcome, Deborah!


I am honored, very honored to have Deborah Kane with us, who is doing some remarkable work—and, can you believe it, within the USDA! Since 2012, [she’s] been working as the national director of Farm to School. So in these last three years, how’s it going?

DEBORAH KANE: It’s going really well. The good news is that schools all across the country are bringing more local, more regional foods into the cafeteria. They’re actively teaching children where their food comes from. And we’re starting to see the results of that work, in that kids are starting to not only want but demand better food choices in their schools.

TM: Oh, that’s can’t be true—you know kids don’t like vegetables. All they do is want hot dogs and tater tots.

DK: You know, I heard from so many kids—actually one little girl in Georgia who made the comment recently that when they get good grades or the school achieves some big success, like the football team wins the game, what-have-you, that it used to be that they would all get to have a Coke, or they’d get to get a candy bar or something. And this little girl said to me, “You know, I started to just think of that as punishment, actually, for accomplishing something. They should be serving us fresh fruits and vegetables. We should have fresh strawberries the day that we do something great.” And I wanted to clap my hands and just hug her. Because the truth is more and more kids are absolutely understanding that they want their bodies to feel good, and the best way for their bodies to feel good is to put good stuff into them. So it’s changing, I promise you.

TM: Well, I didn’t know that the Farm to School Program was an effort by the USDA through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. I was really taken with what the Act was trying to accomplish, and that was “increase schools’ access to healthy local foods.”

DK: That’s right.

TM: Now, how did the local food fit in there?

DK: Well, let’s talk about the Act in general. So I would imagine some of your listeners are very familiar with the Farm Bill. If we talk about any sort of ag policy, we often talk about the Farm Bill.

TM: You mean often called the Food Bill?

DK: The Food Bill, which is reauthorized every four years, right? So there’s also another piece of federal legislation that I track very closely, and you called it the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is exactly right. That’s what we called it in 2010. But historically it’s known as the Child Nutrition Act, and it’s a federal piece of legislation that’s reauthorized every four years, and it sets the standard for what we serve in schools and what we serve in a lot of our nutrition assistance programs for children.

And so in 2010, for the first time in thirty years, one of the things that was accomplished by that Act was we actually increased the nutritional standards. And we said to schools, you know, we want you to increase not only the types but also the varieties of fruits and vegetables that you serve; we want you to increase the quantities of fruits and vegetables; we want you to look at sodium reductions, trans fat reductions; we want you to increase the whole grains. And we made a host of recommendations to schools, created a new standard that they would have to meet, all in recognition of suggestions that came to us from the Institute of Medicine with regard to what we needed to change in order to make sure our kids would live healthy lives. You know, it’s a piece of federal legislation, it’s 600 pages long. But there are two little pages within this huge Act—

TM: Six hundred pages?!

DK: It’s enormous. Two little pages that created the Farm to School Program at USDA. So in the context of “we want you to make all of these changes to the types of food that you’re serving,” from a nutritional perspective, Congress also said, “and where possible, schools, we think it’d be a really good idea if you served local and seasonal products.” And therefore they created the Farm to School Program.

So why did Congress think that was going to be a good idea? Select members within Congress understood at the time that if you can create a relationship for kids with their food, with where it comes from, if you can create the sense that agriculture is an environmental issue, that it’s linked to science class, that it can be linked to all sorts of different curriculum in the school environment, the kids are going to be more receptive to the exact changes we were making in the cafeteria. The child that has planted kale, tended it, and harvested it in the school garden is going to be much more likely to consume that dark leafy green, that kale, when it shows up in the cafeteria.

So, as Congress was saying “Serve more dark leafy greens,” it also said, “And we recognize that you’re going to need and want to take steps to make sure kids are receptive to seeing these new products in the cafeteria.”


TM: So, but you can get that from—well, you used to be able to get it, anyway—from California. So is the program also working with school gardens?

DK: I love this piece of legislation that Congress created—

TM: The two pages!

DK: The two pages, with their two pages. You noted that Congress’s mandate to us was to increase access to local foods. And then Congress further went on to say, “We want you to do that by buying from local and regional producers. We also—” They literally said, “We want you to build school gardens, we want you to get kids out on farms on field trips. We want kids to have a relationship with the men and women who produce your food.”

It’s hard for a student in New York to have a relationship with a farmer in California. So by very definition, we were talking about local—local relationships. And one of the things that I also think about when I think about the Farm to School section in this larger piece of legislation was Congress said we want to invest in the health of our children. But it also said we want to invest in the health of our rural communities. We want to invest in the producers around these schools. So it was a win both for children’s health but it was also certainly a win for economic development in rural economies.

The other thing that I love about this whole notion of Farm to School is it really is a bipartisan issue. I mean, it’s very hard to find someone on either side of the aisle who’s going to stand up and say, “No, I think it’s a bad idea for the farmer down the road to sell products to our school.”

TM: Yeah. If you talk to anyone about school lunch, you see them roll their eyes, and certainly they’ll have a story about it. And it looks like you’re having to do it through their grant program. So not all schools can afford the kind of healthy food that you’re hoping to promote through this program. So I believe that’s what the grant program is about?

DK: Well, what an interesting question. Secretary Vilsack actually is testifying next week in front of Congress and defending parts and pieces of this Act. And one of the questions that we helped him prepare for was the notion that, well, you have given all these schools across the country these USDA Farm to School grants, but what’s to say that once the grant money is gone they’re going to continue buying local products? So—

TM: Or keep their garden going, or keep healthy food going.

DK: Or keep their garden going… So it gets to the same question that you raised. And I’ll say, first of all, yes, absolutely, USDA is distributing Farm to School grants to schools all across the country. That was one of the things we were asked to do by Congress, help these schools get started. But of the schools that have received funding from USDA, 70 percent of them had already dedicated funds from their general food service operating budget, either to buying local or to building school gardens. So the funds they receive from USDA really are intended to help them just go to the next level. Like maybe within their existing budget they’re buying already local fruits and vegetables, or they’re buying local milk. That’s a perfect example because milk is a highly perishable product; they should be getting milk locally.

TM: Expensive to ship.

DK: And expensive to ship. So they’ve already got some local items on their menu. And so the resources from USDA might help them identify producers of protein products. So it might help them bring some local meats onto their menu. And maybe they can’t bring those meats on every day, but it will allow them to start the process with local producers so they can bring meat products in on a monthly basis—that kind of thing.

But suffice to say, Theresa, our general sense is that schools are investing in making these changes, regardless of whether or not they’re getting grant money from USDA. Right? So we have $5 million to distribute. We have funded, I think, 211 projects in the last three years. There are 13,000 school districts in the United States. There are (Theresa said something inaudible) 100,000 individual schools.

That said, 44 percent of those school districts, when asked by USDA… We did a Farm to School census; we wanted to get a sense of how many schools across the U.S. were already buying local products. And we heard back that about almost 4,500 districts were already buying local products. That means that those schools are doing it without USDA support. So… And another 13 percent weren’t currently buying local products but they had plans to start. So you take your 44 percent and your 13, and you get to 57 percent of the school districts in the U.S. who responded positively, let’s just say, to the notion of bringing local products in. That represents, right now, about 23 million children already have access to some type of local product in their school cafeteria.

We were very, very encouraged by that, both with regard to the number of kids we were reaching, but we also asked those school districts that were already buying local, we said, okay, so you’re already buying local—can you give us a sense of what your school food budget is right now? And then can you give us a sense of how much of that budget is allocated to your local community? And we heard that schools were spending at the time—and this is two years ago—about $385 million in their local communities. And again, 56 percent of the school districts that were already buying local said they intended to buy even more local products the following year.

So we’re doing this interview in June, right, 2015. In essence it’s two years later. And so we’re in the field right now, going back to those same 13,000 school districts to find out whether we’ve moved the dial. And you know, I can’t help myself—I peek at the early results every day, so anxious. And I am excited and looking forward to being able to announce the results soon. But if I were a betting woman, I would wager that we’ve seen some progress in those two years.

TM: Well, you know, you were saying about how a big reason was having that connection for the kids and how meaningful it was for them. And of course, in the beginning I was teasing when I said, “Oh, kids don’t like it,” because I’ve heard from Alice Waters that when kids taste their first pea out of a garden, it changes—

DK: It’s mind-blowing.

TM: It is mind-blowing. Or broccoli, or even kale is mind-blowing, or… Certainly that’s how—

DK: Beets. This one little boy said to me as he took his first bite out of a beet, “Oh my gosh, it tastes like sweet dirt! Oh my gosh, it’s so delicious!” And then, honestly, I wish for every person listening to the show that one day they could be there when a little kindergartener eats a fresh strawberry for the first time in their lives. There is nothing like it. And then you sit there and you think, really? That was the first time that you had a strawberry? And it could be, honestly, I said a kindergartener, but it could be a fifth-grader, it could be a ten- or eleven-year-old child eating a delicious fresh strawberry for the first time in their lives. And that just underscores for me the role that these schools play in helping children understand agriculture. If they’re not eating fresh strawberries at home, then my goodness, let’s make sure they’re eating them at school.


TM: Well, you know, the whole local food, the locavore movement, so to speak—that wonderful word that we made up—is so important for that connection with food. But doesn’t it even have other real important aspects of it that maybe we don’t always recognize? I was just thinking that…I just finished reading, finally, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. And she makes a statement in it that if 10 percent of all the food that we ate was local, it would have a significant impact, not just on our health but the environment, our use of fossil fuels, and so on. So I’m just wondering, I know that that isn’t all that…that you’re really more interested in healthy food to kids. But is there any way that we can quantify that, or does it come into the story at all?

DK: Well, I use the “food literacy” word. And it’s funny, Barbara Kingsolver would say 10 percent. And when I first started at USDA the Secretary asked me, “Well, what’s your vision for the Farm to School Program?” And I said, “Every kid, every day. I want every kid in America, every day, to have access to a local product.” And I suspect that might be more than 10 percent if we added it all up.

TM: I like that.

DK: But I have this notion—let’s just use Barbara Kingsolver’s number, the 10 percent—if 10 percent of folks’ diet came from the local area, you have to imagine that we would make different choices about all sorts of things if we were more connected to our food source. We would make different choices about land use; we would make different choices about how we invested our hard-earned dollars in the grocery store. I think it would have profound impact on just a host of factors—I really do.

And the statistic that sort of gets me up in the morning is the notion that kids are more likely to recognize the McDonald’s arches than they are to recognize a carrot top growing out of the ground. I mean, they literally would have no notion of what might be beneath those oh-so-recognizable carrot tops. And I don’t know if that would be true if truly 10 percent of our food came from within our local area. I think we’d have a much different sense of what agriculture was and how important it was to our community, but also to our own personal health.

TM: How about organic? Are you being able to see any movement in any schools with organic?

DK: It depends on where you are. I was literally just down in San Diego, and the San Diego Unified—I don’t know if they’re the third or the fourth or the fifth, but they’re one of the largest school districts in California. The school food service director for San Diego Unified was boasting, not about his local buying program but about his organic buying program. And you’re starting to see that more and more, right?

People, these school food service directors, they dip their toe in the water with something that’s easy, like, “Oh, I’m going to make sure that my milk is local,” because, as we were saying earlier, it’s expensive to transport and it’s highly perishable. But then they go from milk to fruits and vegetables. And then they go from fruits and vegetables to the local hot dog or the local beef patty that they’re going to use in their hamburgers one day. And frankly, the next thing they start asking, once they understand agriculture a little bit better, once they’re having direct connections with producers, then they start to think about production practices. And they start to ask more sophisticated questions about how the food is produced. And next thing you know, there’s an organic item or two on the menu. So I think it’s the next logical step, frankly—

TM: It’s a progression.

DK: It’s a progression.


TM: You know, there’s a lot of commodity food, though, that’s still, of course, going into schools. What do you think? Are you seeing school menus taking the chicken tenders, which, you know, is very common in the commodity world… For those of you out there, perhaps you don’t know that there’s an abundance of commodity food that’s saved just for the schools, which goes into the schools at a very, very inexpensive rate. But are you seeing this combination of local, fresh food with the frozen commodity food that comes in?

DK: We are. Let me say this, just so listeners understand how schools are buying food: When a school food service director sits down to buy food for the cafeteria, let’s just say they have a dollar to spend. Eighty cents of the dollar they receive from USDA in the form of a cash reimbursement. So they’ve got 80 cents that they’re going to spend in cash in their local community. And then the other 20 cents on the dollar they typically receive in the form of what we call USDA foods, also sometimes referred to as commodities.

So 20 cents on the dollar comes to them in the form of USDA foods, and it’s sort of like this magical checkbook in the sky. They can just spend down on their 20 cents. And they get a catalog of all the things that they can receive. And they can receive dried legumes, like chickpeas or red beans, black beans; they can receive lentils; they can receive dairy products like cheese; they can receive a lot of protein products, some of their meat items, their chicken, their beef.

And they can also access fresh fruits and vegetables with that magical checkbook in the sky through a complementary or parallel program, because we work with the Department of Defense, DOD, believe it or not. DOD is fantastic at logistics, and so we have partnered with DOD to get fresh fruits and vegetables into schools. And one of the things that we have been successful in doing in the last few years at USDA is working with all of the DOD distributors to encourage them to buy from local producers in the areas that they serve. So when I look at my catalog of fresh fruits and vegetables, if I’m a school food service director, there’s a little icon next to all the local items that DOD will bring into my school.

TM: Nice!

DK: I know, right? So first and foremost, I think a lot of people don’t know that schools are actually using those commodity entitlement dollars to bring local products into the school meal program. But when they’re not getting those local items from DOD, and maybe they’re buying the chicken patties, let’s just say, from the USDA foods catalog, because those products are so relatively inexpensive compared to what they would spend on the open market, they’re then able to, we say, maximize that other 80 cents. So if you don’t have to spend your 80 cents on really expensive protein products because you’re going to get those protein products at a better price from USDA foods, then you have an opportunity to really maximize your investment in your local community with your cash that you’re getting.

So one good example of this dynamic at play: There was a school in Virginia Beach, in Virginia, and they purchase raw chicken from the USDA foods catalog, and they’ve got their staff trained in their kitchens to cook the raw chicken. And then they make these beautiful chicken wraps with local lettuce and local tomatoes and local carrots—they put local carrots in. And the school food service director will tell you, “I couldn’t have afforded to buy those local tomatoes for this chicken wrap if I didn’t save the money I saved on the chicken I got from USDA foods.”

So I think, I would love to leave your listeners with the sense that the USDA foods program, or the Commodity Program, as it’s known, is a really important piece of the puzzle in putting a beautiful meal on the plate in some of these schools.


TM: Many of the schools’ kitchens don’t know how to cook that chicken and don’t even have any equipment anymore except maybe a microwave, and that their staff simply is not trained to cook.

DK: Right. I mean, there are schools in the U.S. that, to your point, literally don’t have functional kitchens. There are schools that are operating out of trailers, right? They’re in the portable mobile units. There are schools that don’t have cafeterias for the kids to eat in, let alone kitchens for the food to be prepared in. So one of the things that was included in that Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, apart from the Farm to School Program, was equipment grants to just get schools the equipment that they need. So there’s a whole separate category of funding that goes out to schools all across the country for equipment grants just to modernize. That said, within our grant program within the Farm to School Grant Program, we also make equipment available to schools.

So what are they buying, these schools that get our grants? They’re buying things like walk-in coolers, so that they can buy fresh products from a producer on Monday but still have them fresh and edible on a Wednesday, but without a cooler that wouldn’t have been possible.

TM: Wow, not even a cooler.

DK: Not even a cooler. Things like that. So they’re buying coolers. They’re buying knives, because historically they’ve been buying everything pre-cut and pre-chopped, in a bag. And if you’re going to bring in beautiful butternut squash from the producer down the road, you want to able to work with it yourself. They’re buying trainings for their staff so that they know how to work with those butternut squash. They’re literally buying things like cutting boards; processing equipment so that they can bring those beautiful tomatoes in in the summer and have some staff available to process them so that they can be making beautiful pasta sauces or pizza sauces that can be used later in the year. But equipment is a very big barrier, if you will—equipment and training.

TM: [unclear]…deeply into bringing more of a [unclear]… all the kind of new problems that children are having that did not exist when I was a child; increase of cancer; certainly one of the more alarming increases is autism. We have endocrine disruption causing, creating a lot of reproduction problems that end up in all kinds of different problems that children have. And not all of it, certainly, about food, but a lot of it related to our diets.

DK: Well, yes, and you didn’t mention obesity or—

TM: Oh, the big two—and diabetes.

DK: And diabetes. I was waiting! I mean there’s clear evidence, right, that some of the most difficult health crises that we’re facing are absolutely diet-related, absolutely.

TM: Absolutely diet-related. And of course the fact that we have 20 million people about ready to get diabetes, who could prevent it if they changed their diet. And I think that certainly this totally speaks to your program, because when people get to a certain age, it’s so hard to change. I’m sorry, I’m old—I’m really hard to change right now, I really have to work at it. Just, you get set in your ways. But when you’re a child and in school and you learn good habits, you don’t have to struggle as much.

DK: Yeah. I’m glad we’re having this conversation because, you know, we just said oh my goodness, diabetes and obesity, diet-related diseases. And at the same time, I always hesitate to lay the blame on the shoulders of our schools, right? There’s a lot of focus on changing the school meal program, and the fact is that for a lot of children in America they’re getting two-thirds of their daily caloric intake at schools, which is quite a bit. So when school is in session, some kids are showing up for the breakfast program, they’re there for the lunch program, they eat an after-school snack, and some of them might even be participating in a supper program at school. So schools have a responsibility to model healthy, appropriate eating.

But one of the things that we’re finding is that when you make these changes in the cafeteria and you’re making them for the children, those children are going home and they’re saying, “Mom, Dad, guess what I had at school today. I had this thing called a beet! I’d never seen a beet before. Mom, why don’t you buy beets?” And so, to your point about adults are hard to change, these kids who are getting good nutrition and food education at school are going home and they’re changing Mom and Dad.

And the communities around some of these really innovative schools are joining in, right? So the day that beets are on the menu, the grocery stores in the town, three weeks prior, were running beets on special, and they were putting up signs in the grocery store that said, “Our schools are going to be serving beets in three weeks. Take these recipes home and try working with beets in advance of them showing up at the school, so that your kid will be more likely to enjoy and taste those beets when they see them at school.”

You know, the job of creating these healthy behaviors does not rest solely with the schools, nor was the problem created at school. So I want to make sure folks really understand that.


TM: Thank you, Deborah, for speaking with me today. We wish her the best in her Farm to School work. What could be better than helping young children eat good food every day? You can find all Rootstock Radio episodes online at See you next week!


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