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Faces of the Network: Abigail Harper, Farm to School Specialist

Tell us about yourself!

Though my roots are originally midwestern (Illinois), I spent most of my life outside of Boston learning how to eat lobster, pronounce my "r"s, and walk faster than everyone around me. I received my Bachelor's degree in Public Health from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I was largely focused on health education (predominantly in Central and South Americas). During my last two years, I began working on a farm in my hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts. I became increasingly focused on agriculture and nutrition. Following undergrad I spent two years in Guatemala as a Peace Corps Volunteer focused on training school principals and teachers in hygiene, sanitation, and nutrition interventions.

After returning, I spent two more years farming before attending the Friedman School at Tufts University, where I received a Masters in Agriculture, Food and the Environment with a focus on Regional Food Systems Development. Between my first and second year I came out to Michigan to do a three month internship with the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, focused primarily on the Food Hub Network. I fell in love with the collaborative and innovative work going on throughout Michigan, and within the Great Lakes, and I was fortunate enough to land back here shortly after graduation as the Farm to School Specialist!

I feel privileged to have the opportunity to work in a field I am passionate about that is focused on creating the world that I want to live in, and to work with amazing individuals and organizations all throughout Michigan.

How did you get started in food systems work/farm to institution?

I was initially drawn to food systems and agriculture when I discovered that having dirt under my nails and my feet buried in the earth dramatically enhanced my quality of life. From a public health perspective, I became more interested in agriculture as a means to increase access to healthy food. While in Guatemala, I realized how difficult it was to have conversations about preventative medicine, long term planning, or chronic disease prevention when basic needs (i.e. food) were not met.

Despite being an agricultural town, it reflected the national average of 50% of children under five being undernourished. That led me to come back to the United States and work in agriculture as a means to food security, and I saw incredible impacts in my hometown in the time I worked there. However, I was frustrated that my work only benefitted the relatively privileged community I grew up in (and still wasn't economically stable for the farmers), and was eager to learn how to expand the impact to more communities and towns, especially those that historically lacked access to healthy foods.

Farm to Institution is the key to providing economic opportunities to farmers while simultaneously getting good food to those who need it. Institutions that serve everyone, especially K-12 schools and early childhood programs, have such a unique opportunity to improve the health of all they serve through building connections to local, healthy foods. I think by working within systems we already have in place, children will have greater access to healthy foods and support Michigan's incredibly diverse agricultural sector.

What is your role at your MSU Center for Regional Food Systems?

Farm to School Specialist

How does MSU Center for Regional Food systems work towards the goals of the Michigan Farm to Institution Network?

The MSU Center for Regional Food Systems works on all levels to reach the 20% by 2020 goal. For Farm to School in particular, we support schools and early childhood programs in developing relationships with farmers, distributors, processors, and other organizations throughout the state to increase their ability to purchase and use local foods in school meal programs. We also provide funding opportunities through the MI Farm to School Grant Program and Hoophouses for Health to support schools and early childhood programs that may have financial barriers to implementing farm to school programs.

Through the work of the Michigan Farm to Institution Network and Cultivate Michigan, my colleagues are also working to provide food and nutrition directors with the information and tools they need to be able to find and better utilize the variety of products Michigan is known for.

What do you find most exciting or inspiring about what you are doing?

The stories inspire me and keep me energized. I get emails from early childhood programs working with hoophouses for health that are thrilled about the access to local food and the increased opportunity for hands on learning experiences for the toddlers they work with. I see partnerships between schools and farmers flourish, getting kids food that tastes good (and is healthy) and providing farmers with new market opportunities. I was at a school doing a taste testing and witnessed kids shoveling spinach into their mouths and demanding seconds of sprouts!

Beyond that, I'm inspired seeing all the partners that have come on board throughout the state that are working collectively to improve our regional food system and supply chain - that really inspires me to believe that we are moving towards an agricultural system in Michigan that works for producers, consumers, and everyone in between.

What opportunities do you see for moving towards the goal of Michigan Institutions purchasing 20% Michigan food by 2020 and what do you see that leading to in the next five to ten years?

The increase in interest in farm to school is inspiring in and of itself. With the recent call for applications for the MI Farm to School Grant Program, it's brought out activity and interest all over the state that I was previously unaware of. As more schools and early childhood programs express interest and place demand on suppliers and distributors to increase transparency about their locally sourced products, the availability of local product from all sourcing avenues will continue to increase.

What is one thing you’ve learned through your experience working towards these goals that you would like to share with others?

No change will happen in isolation. I firmly believe collaborative efforts are the key to integrated, sustainable, and effective farm to school programs. I'm inspired by those throughout the state who are building deeper relationships with farmers, processors, food service management companies, agribusinesses, community organizations, and other unique partners to help drive progress towards their farm to school goals.


 

Connect with Abby and the Michigan Farm to School Network!