Farm to School Champion: Noelle Warford

Executive Director, Urban Tree Connection

Tell us about yourself and your connection to the farm to school movement.

I’m the Executive Director of Urban Tree Connection, a grassroots nonprofit in West Philadelphia that focuses on building a community-led food system with our neighbors. We partner with residents of West Philadelphia's Haddington neighborhood to develop and sustain community-driven greening and gardening projects.

We applied for a grant to be a partner in a Farm to Early Care and Education (ECE) initiative in Philadelphia because we wanted to serve as a local food source and reach families in a more targeted way with the vegetables we are growing. Building relationships with ECEs in our neighborhood, we distributed 200 community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares in 2019 and hosted farm tours for ECE for students, staff and families. We have also participated in regional learning collaboratives gatherings to think about more policy-wide changes that would support farm to table initiatives, thinking about local sources, increasing ECE capacity to help make these types of activities a norm.

UTC was excited to participate in Farm to ECE work with ECE centers that are interested in a holistic approach to early childhood education by incorporating farming and nutrition into their curriculum and meals at their sites. It is inspiring to see people who are preparing the meals at these ECE sites with intention, understanding how much that affects the children's development.

How has the COVID-19 emergency impacted your work?

Very early on, we had to seek information to make sure we could grow food safely. We had many conversations with farmers and market operators to develop safety and contingency plans. We are part of essential workers who are growing food for people. People were experiencing food shortages, not finding key items and there are so many social predeterminants that make the health of our communities more susceptible. People started to understand that the grocery store is not guaranteed to always have what they need.

We had been looking to redevelop our plans for distributing food. We had already found, through the ECE CSA initiative, that we could be more impactful if we partnered with institutions instead of depending on a market to distribute food from our farm. We needed to expand beyond our market model for people who can’t come to the market. The CSA shares at the ECE sites helped us see how we could be more responsive and reach people in a concentrated way. We applied those lessons during the pandemic when we started to talk to our neighborhood block captains. Our organization has a history of organizing with block captains. As the pandemic went on, block captains shared how residents were losing their jobs and community members were scared to leave their homes because they were sick or knew someone who was sick. There was an exacerbated number of cases in our community (96% Black), and half of the deaths in Philadelphia from COVID-19 are in Black communities. We didn't have the capacity to run safety protocols at our market. We suspended our markets and offered no contact delivery to block captains, CSA-style shared boxes customized based on what was the need on their block.

The block captains were motivated to continue food distribution. We distributed more than 1,400 shares in collaboration with eight block captains.

This new box delivery system was an advancement in our ability to respond and eliminated all previous issues with excess food. The project was supported by a fundraising campaign of many small individual donors. It was a great way to tap into the leadership of the neighborhood. More than 120 were recruited. UTC would not have the capacity to reach that level of community mobilizing as an organization working alone.

Smart Beginnings, a ECE site in community, just reopened in the fall, they got back in touch with us right away to partner again and we have been distributing food to them over the last 2 weeks.

However, we still think it is important to think of different ways to support families with young children. When the block captains were recruiting families, they found that families with small kids would often refuse the share because the children would not eat the vegetables. There is still an educational component that is needed to help families experiment with ways to introduce vegetables early on. Children are dependent on the family for the food they eat. I remember, from our Farm to ECE convenings, how teachers themselves said that learning more about our foods was not only changing their student’s preference but also how they feed their own kids. Cooking in new healthy ways requires creative excitement and time. People fall into a pattern and routine of what comes easily and what is available. There needs to be a high level of support to change those patterns.

What would be your advice for those inspired by your work and excited to try/replicate it in their own community?

It has to be rooted and shaped by the experiences of people who live there. The best projects are developed alongside the people who live in that community.  We perpetuate systemic racism by imposing “solutions” that are not grounded in the particular conditions of a community, and that fail to organize the people most impacted. Our projects should always position Black and Brown communities to have more control over their lives and wellbeing. We need to acknowledge how our food and land systems were built on the exploitation of communities of color; and commit to transforming systems of oppression.

COVID-19 has highlighted the failure of governmental response to keep its’ people safe and provide for basic needs; and the burden has fallen on the NGO sector to carry. In addition to filling in gaps of critical needs, NGOs must call for racial and socioeconomic justice. NGO’s can no longer think of themselves as ‘apolitical;’ we must contribute towards building a new vision for society that is just, cooperative and takes in mind our social and ecological well-being.

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