Farm to school is a true national movement with programs in all fifty states and the District of Colombia. Although some key elements are shared among the state programs, every state has its own unique approach to farm to school. Here, the Green Schools National Network highlights Nebraska’s farm to school efforts and shares the best practices and resources used to get schools involved.
Rising to the Challenge
Nebraska’s formal farm to school program got its start during the 2009-2010 school year. The Center for Rural Affairs and several of its collaborators responded to a call from the National Farm to School Network to establish a Midwest Farm to School Regional Team. In addition to leading the Midwest team, the Center assumed leadership of the state’s farm to school program, a natural fit given the Center’s focus on supporting sustainable farms and rural communities.
Since the beginning, the Center for Rural Affairs has focused on promoting farm to school through facilitating partnerships and training participants on various farm to school topics. The Center offers educational and networking opportunities through trainings, conferences, and webinars for farmers, ranchers, processors, distributors, students, food service staff, school staff, and engaged organizations. The first Nebraska Farm to School Summit was held in 2013, followed by statewide and northeast regional summits in 2014 and a southeast regional summit in March 2015.
The Center is also a proponent of team work in farm to school activities and has incorporated a team development component into its offerings. Not only does the Center help schools access the resources and training they need to implement farm to school programs, they also help schools develop internal teams of administrators, teachers, food service personnel, and students that are critical to maintaining and advancing farm to school projects.
Building Community around Farm to School
Nebraska’s farm to school program is a true collaborative effort. The Center for Rural Affairs works with a wide array of partners who bring a diversity of expertise to the table. Frequent collaborators include:
- The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Service
- Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska
- The Nebraska Department of Education-Nutrition Services
- The Nebraska Department of Agriculture
- Nebraska Farmers Union
- Lone Tree Foods
- Nebraska Food Cooperative
These partners regularly work with the Center on farm to school activities, and many participate on the local advisory committees that lead farm to school projects. In addition, these advisory committees include local stakeholders such as farmers, students, school food service personnel, teachers, and distributor representatives.
The Center’s efforts to promote farm to school are paying off. Interest in the program has been increasing across the state as more stakeholders find ways to get involved, including:
- Local ranchers donating beef;
- Local processors upping their equipment to accommodate school needs;
- Future Farmers of America advisors and agricultural educators incorporating edible foods into their cafeterias, curriculum, and core projects; and
- Food service directors visiting farms to learn more about local sourcing options.
Farm to School Best Practices
Nebraska’s experiences with farm to school has led the Center for Rural Affairs to suggest the following best practices for new and existing programs.
- Form a team. Especially in schools, it is vital to have a group of people who are committed and passionate about making a farm to school program happen. A committed team can share work, coordinate across aspects of programming, build off of each person’s assets, and motivate each other to establish a successful farm to school program. When teams are in place, schools are better prepared to undertake and sustain farm to school programs, and have better morale and higher motivation throughout the process.
- Personal connections between stakeholders, especially farmers and schools, are key for creating successful and sustainable farm to school programs and relationships. Whenever the Center works with farmers or food service directors, they invite one or two representatives from the other group to join in and provide insight and answer questions. Networking is also integrated into training. Face-to-face networking time allows participants to learn from each other and creates an environment where local procurement connections can be made.
- Know your assets. It is important to assess what resources you already have access to, as well as identify who in the community has knowledge and expertise that might be valuable to program implementation.
- Set goals. Start small and be realistic. Achieving small successes in the beginning creates momentum.
- Promote your work. Promote within your school, on the farm, and in the community. Celebrating your farm to school successes will build interest and encourage others to get involved.
Looking to the Future
The Center for Rural Affairs embraces its role as a leader and convener of farm to school in Nebraska and is committed to expanding the state’s programs in three key areas:
- Providing responsive and timely training programs to help farmers and schools to bridge gaps in farm to school knowledge and address any barriers that may arise during implementation.
- Developing innovative farm to school pilot programs.
- Raising farm to school awareness across the state to engage more stakeholders and ordinary citizens in supporting local kids, schools, farmers, and communities through farm to school programs.
A Wealth of Resources
The Center for Rural Affairs’ Farm to School website (www.cfra.org/f2s) has two valuable resources of interest to schools and farm to school advocates. The first is a comprehensive farm to school guidebook (www.cfra.org/f2sguide) that covers every facet of farm to school, from planning and procurement to food safety and classroom curriculum. The second is a “Find a Farmer” tool (www.cfra.org/findfarmer) that enables users to identify which Nebraska farmers are currently sourcing to local schools. In addition to these resources, the website highlights farm to school news, school profiles, and examples of successful initiatives from schools across the state.
Interview with Sarah Smith, Nebraska Farm to School Lead at the Center for Rural Affairs
Nebraska Center for Rural Affairs Farm to School website (www.cfra.org/f2s)