Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Helen Dombalis, Policy and Strategic Partnerships Director of the National Farm to School Network, who was one of the speakers at the 2015 Food Tank Summit in partnership with The George Washington University.
Food Tank (FT): What will your message be at the Food Tank Summit?
Helen Dombalis (HD): As part of the “Growing the Cities” panel, I will discuss how farm-to-school allows children and their families to make informed food choices, while strengthening the local economy and contributing to vibrant communities. Farm-to-school activities, like school gardens, local procurement, and education, foster urban-rural linkages that support kids and families in all communities.
FT: How are you contributing to building a better food system?
HD: I found my way to advocacy after seeing first-hand the impact that federal food and agriculture policies have on people’s lives. Working after college, providing client services for teens with developmental disabilities and adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses, I took note of the seemingly insurmountable social, economic, and health disparities they faced. The foods I was selecting for our cooking classes were not the same foods available at the food pantry, nor affordable with food stamps (now called SNAP). Through research, I came to understand that laws like the Farm Bill were directly impacting the lives of my clients, because they determine what food we produce and how we produce it, and who has access to what foods. Now that I spend my days advocating for policies that advance farm to school, I know that I am contributing to a more equitable future food system than the one that I discovered early in my career.
FT: What are the biggest obstacles or challenges you face in achieving your organization’s goals?
HD: The National Farm to School Network (NFSN) is an information, advocacy, and networking hub for communities working to bring food and agriculture education into schools and preschools. One obstacle faced in achieving our goals is the lack of funding and time available for kids to eat nutritious meals that support family farm incomes. Kids need time to taste, try, and eventually like healthier foods, and schools and other child nutrition programs need more funding to serve these meals.
FT: Who is your food hero and why?
HD: My food hero is my great grandfather Nicholas Dombalis. He emigrated from Greece in 1913, and in 1930 started what is now said to be North Carolina’s oldest family-owned restaurant: the Mecca Restaurant. He worked hard and succeeded in establishing a gathering place in downtown Raleigh. He understood that food brings people together.
FT: In 140 characters or fewer, what is the most important thing we can all do to help change the food system?
HD: I believe that promoting farm to school programs is a key to changing the food system.