A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Signs of Sustainability: Nicci Cagan

The Signs of Sustainability Project is a citizen-led initiative created to show gratitude to our friends and neighbors in the Rondout Valley who demonstrate sustainable practices. Sustainability is defined as stewardship and care of the present and future vitality of our wild, agricultural, and human resources. 

Nicci Nashban Cagan
Photo by Ilene Cutler.

Nicci has been an advocate for school food reform for over 10 years. Among her many creative efforts to raise the standard of food service and education in our school systems, she succeeded in bringing a national celebrity to the Rondout Valley School District: Ann Cooper—the Renegade Lunch Lady! Through Nicci’s persistence and vision she persuaded and cajoled until Ann herself showed up to spend a day in our local school cafeterias, working with staff, parents, students, and local farmers to ignite passion for Ann’s (and Nicci’s) vision of revolutionizing school food. School administrators, the food service director, teachers, and the entire community were able to listen to Ann speak about how it is possible to bring fresh, from scratch food to the lunch line.

But it takes more than a few PTA declarations to bring about this type of change. The thorniest of problems—finding the money and dealing with the vast bureaucracy of school food service—has found a champion in Nicci. Food service reform involves a program to educate about where food comes from, why it matters, how to encourage families to eat fresh and from scratch, so the food is valued and not just tossed in the garbage. It involves budget constraints, labor unions, outdated kitchen equipment, and a whole system of food distribution and subsidies that are heavy to move aside. By poking at this problem with community awareness events and the help of many parents and community organizations like the RVGA, her efforts followed one after another: Get To Know Your Farmer, Create School Gardens, Create a Chef’s Consortium, Bring the Governor’s Chef to School, post post post on Facebook; Nicci’s focus is unwavering.

Progress has been made at Rondout Valley School District, and the biggest news yet is just breaking—RVSD has been chosen as the recipient of a sizable grant and commitment from VT FEED, a partnership of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) and Shelburne Farms, which will provide training and professional development services to an RVSD school team and farm-to-school practitioners, helping to remove barriers to serving local food in school cafeterias and incorporate hands-on food, farm, and nutrition activities into school curriculum and nutrition programs. Nicci will be part of the school team working with this grant! 

Nicci says, “For children to understand wellness, they need to understand interconnectedness—the dirt, the seed, the root, the plant, the food, the sharing, the labor, and the contributions of all our resources form an exciting interconnected classroom for children. This region—with its blooming locavore movement, small farms and natural beauty—is an obvious place for such a school focus to thrive.”  

–Lisa Jones, Signs of Sustainability Coordinator