By. Christina Conell, Senior Technical Advisor, USDA Office of Community Food Systems
Farm to school efforts are all about connecting kids to where their food comes from. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of Community Food Systems (OCFS) helps schools buy more local foods, grow school gardens, and offer nutrition and agriculture education. Schools across the country are adopting community food systems strategies that shorten the supply chain and support health and local economies. In relation to farm to school, our work at the Food and Nutrition Service focuses on three main pillars: grant making, training and technical assistance, and research.
Here are five ways to plant seeds for future farm to school success in your school.
Explore the USDA Farm to School Census
In 2015, USDA conducted a nationwide Farm to School Census, surveying over 18,000 school districts to determine how many schools currently purchase local foods. Results from the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census show that more than 42,000 schools across the country are operating farm to school programs and another 10,000 have plans to start in the future. During the 2013-2014 school year, these schools purchased nearly $800 million worth of local products from farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and other food producers – a 105% increase from the 2011-2012 school year. Forty-six percent of school districts report that they will buy even more local foods in future school years.
The Farm to School Census establishes a national baseline of farm to school activities happening across the country. Whether you are interested in learning about the national landscape, what is happening in your state, or how your school district participates in farm to school, there are many ways that this information can be used to support your farm to school efforts.
Discover Other Local Food System Projects in Your Area with the Local Food Compass Map
The Local Food Compass Map shows USDA and other federal investments in local and regional food systems since 2009, along with data such as farmers markets, food hubs, and meat processors. You can search by state and type of project. This resource is a great way to find out what is going on in your state and connect with potential partners.
Make a Plan
The Farm to Child Nutrition Programs Planning Guide directs you through questions to consider when starting or growing your farm to school efforts. This planning guide should be used as a supplemental tool to the Farm to School Planning Toolkit. This guide can be updated annually to ensure you are working toward your long-term goals. It follows the same steps as the Farm to School Planning Toolkit, but in a more concise and action-oriented manner. Sometimes getting started is the hardest part and this tool breaks it down into manageable chunks. For more examples of how school districts have tackled subjects such as menu planning and curriculum integration, check out our Planning for Farm to School Success webinar series.
Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) in New York received a Farm to School Planning Grant in 2013 to develop a strategic plan for their efforts. Through this process BPS documented their short and long-term goals, along with specific actions they would take to reach those goals. As the second largest district in the state with 34,000 students, BPS has a big opportunity to impact the local economy and children’s health. The district’s action plan includes research on what products are available locally, specific ideas for how the cafeteria and classroom can connect, and who will be involved in making it happen.
Build Your Team
Farm to school efforts bring communities together and often take a team of people to sustain. Building a team is a critical first step in the planning process and essential to the long-term success of your program. It is an opportunity to create allies, bring in knowledge and expertise beyond what exists within your core group, recruit some “boots on the ground” for planning and implementing your program, and establish a sustainable funding plan. Reach out to potential partners and start having conversations now about potential collaborations. This webinar shares tips and best practices for building a farm to school team and creating a foundation for a successful project.
Here are some questions to think about as you build your team:
- Do you have representation from across the farm to school supply chain?
- Outside of the team, what people or groups will you look to for guidance and advice?
- What specific people or categories of people would you like to have on your farm to school team or advisory committee? What are your expectations of these people?
San Diego Unified School District’s (SDUSD) Garden to Café program is certainly a team effort (see related article in this issue). This program certifies school gardens throughout the district to serve their garden-grown produce as part of school salad bars. It trains dedicated teachers, volunteers, community partners, and cafeteria staff who are interested in bringing the program to their school. In partnership with the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health, the Garden to Café program ensures the school garden meets various criteria regarding safe growing and harvesting practices. Once a school is certified, the school can begin harvesting, preparing, and serving raw garden produce in their cafeterias. Student favorites from the garden include snap peas, radishes, microgreens, and broccoli. Students plant, grow, harvest, and weigh garden produce. Their harvest is delivered to the cafeteria, washed, prepped, and served, to be eaten for lunch the following day. Garden to Café is a great way for school food service departments to support school gardens, and to ensure that lessons learned in the garden about growing healthy food extend to making healthy choices in the cafeteria!
October is National Farm to School Month, so it is a great time to take action and celebrate early wins. Districts in the Midwest are celebrating on October 12 with the Great Lakes Great Apple Crunch, Colorado promoted local foods last month during Colorado Proud School Meal Day, and California schools explore their agriculture heritage all year long with California Thursdays. Clearly communicating your goals, achievements, and needs is key to getting buy-in and financial and in-kind support for your farm to school program. Plus, marketing your program can be a creative and fun way to engage partners.
Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) rings in the new school year by celebrating local producers and their fall bounties with an annual Farm to School Community BBQ – a community event built around fresh food, families, and fun! This event is a wonderful way to bring together MPS students and their families, school staff, local farmers and vendors, True Food Chef Council members, and other community partners. It is a perfect opportunity for the district to promote their farm to school program and show off nutritious school meal items. The district hosts about 1,000 people during the celebration, which generates student excitement and family awareness about the local fresh fruits and vegetables that will be on salad bars and in delicious, scratch-made recipes. The evening is filled with tons of roasted corn and other farm to school foods – along with dozens of fun activities and live music. The highlight of the night is the corn-shucking contest – students and special guests compete in a high-stakes race to see who can shuck the most ears of corn. Check out MPS’ Farm to School Toolkit for more information on their efforts.
Simply put, farm to school works. Regional offerings (and therefore economic opportunities for local food producers) can span the school meal tray and include everything from fresh fruit and vegetable servings to wheat in the pizza crust, beans in the chili, rice in the stir fry, turkey in the sandwiches, and cheese in the quesadillas. Districts across the country – urban and rural, small and large – are digging in and we are here to help!
How will you get started?
About the Author
Christina Conell began her career at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service in 2010, where she works as the Senior Technical Advisor in the Office of Community Food Systems. Christina has worn many hats, from helping to get the Farm to School Grant Program off the ground to leading the team’s training and technical assistance efforts. She has detailed to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and served as an Excellence in Government Fellow with the Partnership for Public Service. Christina holds a BA and a MPP, both from the University of Virginia.