Back in 1997, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District was in the education system vanguard with salad bars in six of its 15 schools. It was a time when most of the nation’s cafeteria food was what Rodney Taylor, then the district’s director of food and nutrition services, calls “heat and serve”—that is, “prepackaged, highly processed.”
Taylor recalls how the salad bar innovation prompted the parent of one student to approach him with a complaint hidden in a compliment: “He told me that he was delighted that the school had a salad bar, but was dismayed that his daughter wouldn’t eat at it. The lettuce was brown, the carrots weren’t good. He suggested we buy from the local farmers market.”
The affluent Santa Monica-Malibu area, part of the greater Los Angeles megalopolis, had launched a farmers market some 15 years earlier, but the rebirth of farm-to-table eating was still in its very early days (for perspective, Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma was still a decade away). Even so, Taylor rose to the challenge and started the nation’s first farmers market salad bar.
Taylor’s program, which he subsequently took to California’s Riverside Unified School District (where 68 percent of children came from at-risk homes), is featured in a 35-minute documentary called “Food Frontiers.” The film, produced by the Center for a Livable Future (CLF), a branch of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, looks at six initiatives across the country that tackle different aspects of food sustainability, food security and healthy eating.
The documentary is a kind of follow-up to 2010 film “Out to Pasture: The Future of Farming?”; that documentary looked at alternatives to industrial models of meat and egg production. With “Food Frontiers,” says Leo Horrigan, who produced both films, “We wanted to go from food production to the other end of the food system: food access.”
Horrigan, who holds the open-ended title of “food system correspondent” for CLF, says the documentaries are “meant to inspire people.” Along with screenings at conferences and special events (or see it on YouTube), the films are part of a high school curriculum called FoodSpan, a collection of 17 lesson plans available for free on the CLF website.
“The hope is [FoodSpan] will plant some seeds, and maybe lead to some version of the projects in the film,” says Mark Winne, a senior adviser at CLF, which he describes as an academic center “that acts like an activist organization.” And choosing film as the vehicle for the message makes sense. “There’s so much interest in food films,” he points out. “The market seems to be almost insatiable.”
Winne, who has been called “the father of food policy work,” has been involved with a number of what are known as “food policy councils” (composed of representatives from various segments of the food system); in fact, he helped to start one in Baltimore. Additionally, he was a founder of the national Community Food Security Coalition. That background made Winne the perfect person to find programs to feature in “Food Frontiers.”
In addition to the Los Angeles-area school cafeteria program initiated by Rodney Taylor, the film looks at:
+ The Circle C Market in Cody, Neb., a student-run nonprofit grocery store in a town where, previously, residents had to travel more than 40 miles to shop;
+ Dr. Yum, a pediatrician in Virginia who teaches her patients—and their parents —about healthy eating;
+ The Happy Kitchen in Austin, Texas, a community-run cooking school where students learn how to prepare healthy and affordable meals;
+ The Fresh Food Financing Initiative in Philadelphia, which has raised nearly $200 million to eradicate inner-city food deserts; and
+ Harvest Home, a New York City nonprofit that develops and supports farmers markets specifically in low-income neighborhoods.
In choosing the mix of programs, says Horrigan, the producers considered a number of factors to create regional balance, highlight both rural and urban issues, and present a mix of problems and solutions.
Most of the work at CLF is data-driven, says Anne Palmer, the center’s program director. “That approach is not terribly appealing for most audiences,” she adds, while “Food Frontiers” and similar projects “appeal to people’s hearts and minds.”
One of the film’s most charming sequences is farmer Bob Knight’s experience with the acres and acres of 100-year-old orange groves on his spread in Southern California. Old trees, it turns out, produce small oranges, a product difficult to sell in traditional grocery stores.
“Who eats small oranges?” Knight wondered. When he approached Taylor, he had his answer: “Children eat small oranges.” The Riverside school district purchased every piece of fruit Knight grew, and he soon got his neighbors involved. Now his Old Grove Orange food hub aggregates produce from 33 farmers who sell to 23 school districts.
Before he encountered Knight, says Mark Winne, “I didn’t know about small oranges.”
Since Taylor brought small oranges to small hands in Los Angeles, school cafeteria food all over the country has vastly improved. Now all 50 states—and some 2,000 U.S. school districts—have “farm to school” programs. “They call me a pioneer,” says Taylor. “What I did was stick to the idea that kids needed to eat more fruits and vegetables.” In the film, Taylor contends that while a good education is important, kids should also graduate knowing about healthy eating. Otherwise, he notes, “Johnny might be the smartest kid in the class who dies of a heart attack at 35.”
After 27 years working with California schools (a stint that followed many years in the private sector), last year Taylor was summoned from retirement by Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the nation’s 10th largest school system. There, he oversees meals for some 184,000 students in 196 schools. “We’re the largest food service operation in the state,” Taylor says.
The biggest change from Southern California (where we’ve heard it never rains), he says, is the weather: “I’ve been through the full cycle here and I understand why people love the seasons. Last winter, we got the hardest snow in a number of years, so I don’t imagine snow is ever going to bother me.” But he does miss those oranges.