Looking back to grow forward: the importance of evaluation in farm to school
Do you remember getting docked points on your algebra test if you failed to ‘show your work?’ If the equation was 2x = 10, it wasn’t acceptable to simply write x=5. For full points, it was important for you demonstrate how to isolate the x. As we learned from junior high algebra class, documenting the ‘how’ is essential.
So, what makes Farm to School work, and how do we know the work is making an impact? Good evaluation cannot be divorced from good program management. Think about this for a moment; to develop and implement solid Farm to School initiatives, evaluation must be prioritized. A basic ingredient to know whether you have a good thing going is documentation.
The Evaluation for Transformation framework released last year by the National Farm to School Network is a gold mine in determining the significance and worth of Farm to School. The framework defines the outcomes that Farm to School has the potential to achieve, and it offers common language, guidelines and metrics to understand those outcomes for the first time.
At the beginning of 2015, Minnesota’s Statewide Farm to School Leadership team set out to learn what makes our team work and determine what outcomes have occurred as a result of our collective action. According to the USDA Farm to School Census, 208 school districts in Minnesota participated in Farm to School in the 2011-12 school year. This is up from just 18 in 2006. While we know Farm to School partnerships have flourished in Minnesota, we set out to learn what, if any, role the Farm to School Leadership team has played in this tremendous growth. This team was formed in April 2011 with the purpose to leverage resources, improve communication and collaboration, and ultimately maximize the impact of Farm to School in our state. It was built upon the strong foundation of collaboration that had already been laid, and together, we developed a team agreement as a basis for shared leadership, responsibility and accountability.
This infographic provides a glimpse of Farm to School in Minnesota, including the benefits of our leadership team as described by 22 current and former members. An integrative leadership framework was selected to guide the evaluation of our leadership team because it is designed to increase understanding of how cross-sector collaborations are brought together to effectively address large scale, public problems. Minnesota’s Farm to School Leadership Team is cross-sector as it consists of 11 organizations from the public and private sector with expertise from public health, rural development, education and agriculture.
So what are our next steps? In partnership with Family Development’s Applied Research and Evaluation Team, we will work together to produce two additional documents. One will highlight the success of the Farm to School Leadership team and the growth of Farm to School activities in our state, and another will be written as a ‘how-to’ guide intended to help others build and sustain Farm to School Leadership teams and cross-sector collaborations.
Evaluation shouldn’t be dreaded or viewed as something we ‘have’ to do. If we begin to shift our thinking to see evaluation as an integral component of Farm to School and our work and take a systems approach, evaluation not only improves how we tell our story, it ensures that Farm to School initiatives truly do help kids eat healthy, support nearby farmers, foster economic vitality and strengthen communities.