Christina Muniz is a native Texan whose passion for sustainable food led her to the UNH School of Law.
And that led to a climate fellowship at the UNH Sustainability Institute in Durham where Muniz spent the summer crafting a document that will help make it easier for local farmers to get their food into New Hampshire public schools by becoming approved vendors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Working with the New Hampshire Farm to School program, whose aim is to connect Granite State farms with schools, Muniz produced a clear, concise how-to brochure that cuts through the reams of red tape wrapped around the vendor application process.
The USDA spends about $2 billion a year on food for feeding programs, including the National School Lunch Program. Being an approved vendor would put some of that money in farmers’ pockets and fresh local food in school cafeterias.
Working through the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, farmers would have a guaranteed buyer: The AMS is a USDA subsidy that buys food (100 percent domestic) at market value and sells it to schools at a lesser rate.
Currently there aren’t any New Hampshire food producers approved to sell to AMS. That doesn’t mean local farmers aren’t selling to schools; they are but the schools aren’t getting any help with the cost and farmers aren’t guaranteed they’ll keep buying from them.
The problem, Muniz says, is the AMS’ multiple-step application process and the pages and pages of content that must be combed through to understand those many steps.
“It can be very daunting,” Muniz says. “It’s a long process — not difficult but long. It’s pretty time consuming; it’s taken me weeks to sort through it.”
In an effort to simplify the procedure, Muniz spent the summer paring down the information on the USDA website into a 12-page document. New Hampshire Farm to School will help get the pamphlet to farmers.
“I wanted to create a user-friendly guide on how to connect with the USDA that says, ‘This is what you need do’ so the farmer will think, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” Muniz says.
That’s something of a personal philosophy — “I can do that” — for Muniz, who began her college career as an aerospace engineer. When it didn’t prove exciting enough, she switched to anthropology graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M. She then spent two life-changing years as an AmeriCorps volunteer at Heifer International’s Overlook Farm in Massachusetts.
“That taught me there was a whole other world out there,” says Muniz, whose focus at UNH Law is on food and agriculture.
She followed the Heifer experience with an internship at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., where she started expressing her passion in terms of how things should be, not how they were, leading people to say she should become a lawyer.
“It started to make sense to me,” Muniz says. “The logic of it.”
She recalls an incident as an undergraduate taking those aerospace classes. A professor told the students that during the Apollo 13 crisis, someone at the Kennedy Space Center dumped a box on the table and said the contents were the tools they had to fix the problem.
“Law is basically like that box the NASA engineers had to work with,” the long-time San Antonio resident says. “Here’s the box, here are the tools, figure it out. I like that kind of challenge.”
Of the food brochure challenge, Muniz says, “It took longer than I thought and was more cumbersome but it was worth it.
“Getting farmers to sign on will take time. It won’t happen this year but maybe next. Local businesses and farms aren’t going to supply all the New Hampshire schools but they could supply more. And anything more is going to benefit everyone.”