Interviewee: Johanna Herron
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: February 18, 2016
Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Description: Johanna Herron works with the state agency in Alaska to promote Farm to School.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is February 18, 2016. I’m here in Anchorage, Alaska, for the AKSNA annual conference, and this morning I’m talking with Johanna Herron. Welcome Johanna and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
Johanna Herron: Thank you.
JB: Could we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
JH: Sure. I was born in Colorado. I was raised there for a couple of years and then we moved to Minnesota for about seven or eight years, and went back to Colorado. I came up to Alaska in 2000, and I moved up to Fairbanks. So I stayed there for thirteen years. Right now I’m living in Palmer, which is a few hundred miles south of Fairbanks.
JB: Growing up, was there a child nutrition program in your school?
JB: Did you participate?
JH: I did. I remember very well we had tickets to get our meals. So we had food stamps and I was a free meal child, and I was very thankful. I remember getting breakfast at some point. It must have been in junior high or high school when it started. I remember breakfast being a new thing.
JB: Do you remember any of your favorite menu items in those days?
JH: Gosh, I think I was a pretty normal kid with the pizza and grilled cheese as my favorites; that kind of thing.
JB: So after high school what did you do?
JH: After high school I went to college. I got a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. I also worked a lot, so I wasn’t a traditional student. I went part-time and it took me about ten years to get that. I was in the food industry. When I moved up to Alaska I finished my bachelor’s degree. I got a master’s degree in community nutrition – focus on farm to school. And I met my husband who is a chef. Again, I was in the restaurant industry. I did waitressing, bartending, a lot of stuff like that to pay the school bills.
JB: So how did you get involved in child nutrition as a profession?
JH: You know, I think it was my background in the restaurant industry that made me keenly aware of the opportunity with child nutrition as a platform for food with kids. I remember first getting involved when I was pregnant with my son. I heard about a wellness committee or something like that in 2006. They were charged with coming up with wellness plans in every district. And so that was my introduction to the realities of what child nutrition has to deal with, with the reauthorization every five years, all the changes that go along with that. So I was a part of that wellness committee, and then I decided to do my master’s work in seeing if there was interest in the schools to add local foods, to add foods that were sourced from Alaska. And that led to a relationship that I – I think my first conference like this was in 2009, where I was telling them about my master’s thesis project to give a survey out to all of the food service directors and since then I have attended all of their conferences. I’ve trained. I have learned the ins and outs of child nutrition and they are one of my biggest partners now.
JB: Has there been a mentor or someone along the way who kind of helped guide your career?
JH: For Farm to School in general or do you mean the child nutrition sector?
JH: I would have to say that my mentor for child nutrition has been Jo Dawson. She’s the current child nutrition program manager or director – I’m not sure what her official title is – and she really helped me understand the ins and outs of ways that we can intersect with the work I do and the work she does. And this last legislative session actually cut the Farm to School Program, and she came to the rescue with federal funds that were able to keep the program going. So I think that as far as child nutrition goes she’s definitely one of my mentors. And then with Farm to School work I’ve been very fortunate. There’s not much in this state for that kind of work or mentorship, and I’ve been able to partner with national organizations and a few key people in Oregon. USDA has a Farm to School team now, and they’ve been really critical to a lot of what I’ve learned and grown to. I think Anupama Joshi is probably the name I’d throw out there. She’s the director of National Farm to School Network, and she’s been a huge influence on my work and where I’ve gone.
JB: Well tell me about your work. What is it you do?
JH: Farm to School is really an intersection of trying to link up producers with a new market, being the school food environment. And that could be anything from lunches, breakfasts, to after-school programs, summer meal programs, whatever makes sense. And really it’s a triple win. You’re looking at educating kids so they can really have an appreciation for their immediate food system. You’re doing this education side, garden-based education, that kind of thing. And then you’re also making an impact on possible economic factors, where you’re growing the producers’ capabilities. From the food service side you’re getting access to this fresh food that you don’t normally get access to through the large distributors and vendors. And then it has a positive environmental impact by reducing the need for imported foods, food miles, building food security within the state, that kind of thing.
JB: Now are you an entrepreneur or do you work with an agency?
JH: I’m with the state actually.
JB: Oh, OK.
JH: Yes, so I work for the Division of Agriculture in their marketing program.
JB: And so you’re partnering with the school food programs.
JH: I partner with child nutrition programs, yes.
JB: I see. What’s a typical day like for you, or is there such a thing?
JH: I don’t think there is such a thing. I would say that I do everything under the sun. The first year I was doing this I did like forty-three presentations in a year. So I would speak at conferences, help people understand what the program is about and what resources are available to them. I do a lot of relationship facilitation. I get calls from food service that say they want a local whatever and I find that producer for them. Or I get a call from a farmer that says. “I have a bunch of leftover potatoes this year. Is there anyone that can buy them?” I send out a lot of information for grant opportunities. I secure funds to give out for grants, for educational grants or building gardens. I answer a lot of questions through email and phone. I don’t know what typical would be but I’m behind a computer a lot. And then I do end up in front of an audience a lot too.
JB: Do you do anything with school gardens also?
JH: Yes. That’s part of the education component, so we’ve done a couple censuses. I’m right up there with national average. We have about thirty percent of our schools have a garden or some sort of garden-based education happening, which is really exciting. One thing that we do is try to link people up with garden grants. If we can secure funds for it we give out garden grants. We have one open right now for Summer Farm to Meal Site, so if the school has a summer meal program or anything like that they can come and apply for a grant right now to get a garden, or to get kids to a farm, or whatever it is that they want to do. We’re really careful in Alaska to make sure that we’re cognizant of all of our communities. There are a lot of communities that don’t have a farm, so instead they might use it for a fishing trip or a hunting trip, some way to engage in whatever their food system is.
JB: Does Alaska face any unique challenges regarding child nutrition programs?
JH: Absolutely. I think transportation’s definitely a unique challenge up here. I don’t think any other state in the nation has the vastness that we have. I did a presentation once that showed the distances, and some of our communities are as far apart as Chicago to San Francisco, and Texas to North Dakota, so it’s like we have a huge transportation challenge. Everything’s flown – a lot of things. A lot of things are barged. And if those things don’t show up – a lot of our communities, it’s funny, because when it happens and impacts the road system communities you feel it, but that’s reality, everyday reality for most of our communities. I think around ninety percent of our communities are off the road system, and that only accounts for twenty percent of the student population. So it may not be the biggest impact, but it’s definitely if you look at the impact in the number of districts, the majority of our districts are very vulnerable. I think right along with that is just money. Money is a challenge. It costs a lot more in Alaska to make a meal than it does anywhere else. Even if we have that higher rate for the reimbursement it doesn’t come close to making things work.
JB: What changes have you seen over the years in child nutrition?
JH: There’s been a lot of change with the acceptance of the standards changes. I think that it’s a hard thing to change like that, and I don’t think we put enough emphasis on the value of getting kids engaged in that change system, because a child needs to see it over and over and over to accept it and decrease waste. They need to be a part of that deciding process. They need to taste test. They need to name the dish, whatever. But the more that you engage the kids, the more, especially peer to peer, like having, we’ve done a thing where we have culinary students do a taste test with younger students, and that admiration for your peers and being an older kid versus an adult is huge. So I really think that over time it’s been a hard change for food service, but it’s done amazing. I think that kids eating lunch now have a much better meal layout in front of them than ever before. Financially it’s not helping the schools at all because there hasn’t been enough buffer on that. We haven’t solved the costs of that new meal. But I can say my kids eat school lunch every day. They know they have good options for it and what they are served. It’s hard to do every day as a parent, with two working parents often, and so it’s a time saver to be able to know that they’re going to school and having the best meal they can have.
JB: Do you get to interact with the children much?
JH: Yeah. Not a ton. I do make it a priority to live what I do so that I’m good at telling people what it is that we do. So I do offer services where I go into classrooms and do a class lesson. I might do a garden lesson if there’s somebody in the community, and those just help you broaden your capability for giving advice and input. We have a few things that go on throughout the year like there’s National Farm to School Month is all of October. We have Alaska Agriculture Day in May. There are also key promotions or events that we run that get me out into the classrooms and working with the kids. And then I intentionally make it a goal to eat school lunch once a month so I know what I’m talking about.
JB: Good for you. Do you have any memorable stories about special kids you’ve served or people you’ve worked with?
JH: Gosh. There are a lot. You know, I think the story that keeps me going with Farm to School is the one that I had from a couple of years ago where I was asked to speak at the legislature and I gave a presentation about the value of Farm to School and how policy plays a role in that, and having a balanced policy approach is really helpful, and how it’s really about culture change. There are a lot of schools that have been doing Farm to School for a long time, Vermont for example years ago. They never had any job descriptions or questions on interviews where you would be asking about local food use or Farm to School, but now if you read the job descriptions and interview questions you see that a lot. How are you going to incorporate local food? So that was a culture shift, the way that they have changed the way they think about the value of that role in feeding kids. Right after I spoke a couple of kids got up and talked about Farm to School. It was two fourth graders, a fifth grander, and a seventh grader. And the fourth and fifth graders were really cute. They just talked about how much they loved to get dirty and play in the soil and eat healthy food. But the seventh grader, I mean the room just went silent. You got the chills. He said, “You know, I’ve been doing Farm to School since I was in the fourth grade, and now I think twice about what I put in my mouth. I think twice about what I throw away, because I know who it is that grew that sometimes. Sometimes I know where.” And then he said he and his buddies thought they would try it at home. So they went outside their trailer park and they had this little plot of land and they grew some food, and “It worked!” he said. He was so excited. And he goes, “And then I harvested it and got to bring it home and show my parents how to cook with it.” So I was like, “Wow, that was a way better culture change than mine,” but that’s exactly what the goal is, to raise this generation of kids with an appreciation of what they’re putting in their bodies so it can impact their health, appreciation for the people that are growing it for them so it impacts your economy and keeps those dollars local, all of that. It’s also really exciting to see food service – one really cool food service story – we did a study looking at the cost difference of buying local cabbage and processing it themselves instead of buying precut cabbage, and it turned out it was cheaper even with shrinkage and labor and everything, it was cheaper to buy local, which was exciting, because that was the first win that we had. “Oh, it’s not going to cost more!” And I remember hearing the ladies in the kitchen say, “It smells so fresh. It tastes so good. It’s fun to serve.” And so it’s like this this boost to their egos when they can do stuff like that and come off as culinary images instead of just being a manufacturer where you’re putting stuff together that’s all premade. I think it’s really fun to see that happen in the kitchen.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field?
JH: Demystifying food. I think that you get good at what you do and I’ve brought a lot of food service directors to farms. I’ve brought a lot of farmers to these conferences, and when you make it a reality that you see this person that’s growing your stuff, food becomes real too. A lot of people honestly don’t know that there’s agriculture up here. A lot of people think it’s just fish. So it’s been really fun to make those connections and dream big and be able to get big ideas and big change on the horizon. I don’t know that we’ve gotten to where I thought I would be right now, but I’m an eternal optimist and I just feel like that’s been my contribution.
JB: Thank you so much for sharing with me.
JH: No problem. Thank you.