Background image of Jamese Kwele, standing at a podium, delivers a keynote address.

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Advancing equity inFarm to School education

On February 12, 2020, our Director of Food Equity and newly-appointed National Farm to School Network advisory board member, Jamese Kwele, presented the keynote address at the annual Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Conference in Silverton, Oregon. In the following excerpt of her remarks, Jamese shares examples of Farm to School organizations that are working to center equity and where opportunity remains to shift power and address injustice.

Thank you to the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network for having me here today.

I’m truly honored to be speaking to you all, and I’m told that we’re in good company with farm to school advocates and educators in the audience.

This is a powerful moment for me. I started my career doing community and school-based nutrition education at The Food Trust as a nutrition educator with the SNAP-Ed program [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Education], serving in that role for six-and-a-half years. My roots in this work are in the community, in the classroom, and in the garden, with youth and families.

I’m also a mom, of a 6- and 15-year-old, and before I moved here to Oregon, I served as a school board director in a small Pennsylvania school district that served 5,000 children—90 percent of whom were children of color.

I come to you this morning with all of these experiences—as a mother of Black children, an educator, a former school board director, a Farm to School and Farm to Preschool advocate—as the inspiration for my remarks today.

I moved from Pennsylvania about a year ago, and I want you all to know that Oregon is widely recognized across the nation as one of the leading states when it comes to Farm to School, and that is in no small part due to the amazing work each and every one of you does every day. Folks across Oregon are not only doing this very important Farm to School work, but are also doing it with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind. I have truly been blown away by the incredible work I see and hear happening every day across the state. I want to begin today by highlighting just a few examples:

Grow Portland serves school communities that are diverse and vibrant, often with 15 languages spoken in a classroom. They prioritize and value long-term relationships and know that trust takes time. Their staff engage in community outreach with school partners, culturally specific organizations, and attend school events as much as possible.

“This is where we go beyond diversity and beyond inclusion. This is where we start talking about equity, justice, and liberation.”

This year, Grow Portland is working with 11 Special Education Focus Classrooms as part of their regular teaching schedule. This is a new initiative, and they have pursued ongoing professional development and collaboration with those teachers to ensure that they are meeting the needs of all students. They have attended trainings on disability justice and the intersections of racism and poverty. They are also working to install [Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant] beds at all of their school garden sites and to make sure this is top priority with any new school partnerships.

This is all incredible work, and yet Grow Portland recognizes they have more to do to shift power and center racial equity in their work. Humility and reflection are keys to Grow Portland’s approach. They recognize that their current teaching staff is predominantly young white women and that they need to seek more diversity that reflects the communities they serve.

Growing Gardens hires school garden coordinators from the school community, based on candidates’ love of working with children and gardening, and less so based on their formal educational or professional backgrounds. Growing Gardens also hires educators who demonstrate an understanding and/or lived experience of multicultural school communities.

They incorporate languages other than English in programming, and all of their Home Gardens Community Organizers are former participants in the program. At Growing Gardens, all board and staff attend a two-and-a-half day Undoing Racism training. In addition, each program reports back to the board on what measures they have taken each month toward undoing racism. This is all incredible work, and Growing Gardens recognizes they have more to do to shift power and center equity in their work.

FoodCorps is doing some amazing work. Did you all see the New York Times article “What if Children Ran the School Lunchroom?” that covered FoodCorps’ work at Kairos PDX? FoodCorps’ Reimagining School Cafeteria program is working to improve the school food experience by letting students customize their meals, participate in taste tests, and brainstorm ways to redesign their school cafeterias. This is a great example of providing kids with the tools and skills they need to build their own relationship with healthy food and lifting up the importance of youth voice and leadership in the process. And, like all the other examples, our friends at FoodCorps also recognize that they have more to do to shift power and center racial equity in their work.

Finally, the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network and its member organizations and partners across that state advocated for and got passed this amazing Farm to School bill, HB 2579. With its passage, a record $15 million has been allocated for Oregon’s Farm to School programming.

It’s pretty awesome, because the bill has certain components of diversity, equity, and inclusion written into it. Schools with higher rates of free and reduced National School Lunch Program participation will be prioritized in competitive procurement grants, along with those that engage families in Farm to School and use foods and activities that are culturally-relevant to students.

In addition, during the rule-making process, the network’s policy steering committee teamed up with a number of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)-led organizations, including the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition, Mudbone Grown, Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, Adelante Mujeres, Familias en Acción, and CAPACES Leadership Institute, to ensure equity was integrated into the recommendations for rule-making for the education and procurement grants.

Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network is doing great work, and as a network, we recognize we have more to do in order to shift power and center racial equity.

We know that equitable policy and systems change is an important part of advancing equity in Farm to School, and equity requires centering the leadership of impacted communities in policy development, rule-making, and implementation. In the coming months and years, we’ll need to work together to ensure that BIPOC producers and food businesses, as well as BIPOC-led education and agriculture organizations, across the state are able to benefit equitably from Oregon’s significant Farm to School investment.

This is what this work is about. It’s about making change; it’s about learning; it’s about growing as a movement; it’s about shifting, and yes, it’s about dismantling systems of oppression that exist both within us and outside of us.

It’s also about applying a loving critique to ourselves and to the work that we do. It’s about holding a mirror to ourselves and asking, “Where do we still need to make progress?”

“Centering those with lived experience means shifting power so those individuals have the space, time, and resources needed to lead.”

We can advance equity in Farm to School by being in conversation with young people and families about what they desire and being accountable to the needs and desires of students and families. We can advance equity in Farm to School education by rejecting the framing of Black, Indigenous, and people of color—and our communities—as broken, or in need of fixing.

Our communities are not broken. Our cultures are not broken. Our languages are not broken. Our ways of eating and being do not need to be fixed. We are whole, beautiful, strong, and resilient, and what we teach and learn should not correct, not fix, not subtract. We must end the colonial project of education that sought and continues to strip Indigenous and people of color of our cultures, languages, and ways of being. Teaching and learning must add to our whole selves and enrich the many strengths that exist within our children, families and communities.

With Farm to School, we’re here together, building a movement. Our challenge is to make this movement inclusive and, I dare say, to go even further beyond the concept of inclusion, beyond just asking who’s being included and who’s being left out, and really begin to ask ourselves this: Who is leading and more importantly who is being given the resources to lead?

This is where we go beyond diversity and beyond inclusion. This is where we start talking about equity, justice, and liberation.

Efforts intended to serve or help BIPOC communities must be led by and benefit those who are directly impacted by racism in the food system and land injustice.

As we work in solidarity to dismantle racism in the food and education systems, all of us need to ask ourselves: How am I contributing to a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable field whose collective work advances equitable outcomes?

Growing food equity necessitates centering the leadership of those with lived experience who are impacted directly by racial inequities. Centering those with lived experience does not mean merely working with those communities; it means shifting power so that individuals from these communities have the space, time, and resources needed to lead and develop solutions for our communities.

I’ll say it again: with Farm to School, we’re here together, building a movement. In building this movement, we have to contend with the history and ongoing legacy of land theft, enslavement, racial exclusion, and farm worker injustice.

As our friends from the National Farm to School Network remind us, we must recognize that the systems and sectors within which Farm to School exists—including the food system, education system, economic system—are deeply racialized and have in the past and continue in the present to exclude, disadvantage and cause harm to Black, Indigenous, Latino, immigrant, and other people of color in our communities. Systems like these that are failing anyone are failing all of us, and we cannot engage in Farm to School effectively without changing them.

Before I close, I’m going to leave you with a quote from Drs. Samy Alim and Django Paris, the authors of a powerful book, “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies”:

“Being and becoming a culturally sustaining educator is dynamic; it’s about critically learning with community; it’s about, together, sustaining who youth and communities are and want to be; and it’s about doing all of that with respect and love.”

Thank you!