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Strange Bedfellows: Growing farm to school through unlikely partnerships

NFSN Staff Thursday, October 02, 2014

Guest post by Betsy Rosenbluth, Shelburne Farms
Shelburne Farms and Vermont FEED serve as the Northeast Regional Lead Agency for the National Farm to School Network. Each of our regional lead agencies will be contributing blog posts during Farm to School Month. 

Kelp growers. Hospitals. Chefs. Mental health agencies. Food shelves. What do all of these have in common?

You might not have guessed it, but these strange bedfellows are all important players in the Northeast’s ever-expanding farm to school programs.

Ten years ago, farm to school was just starting to catch on across the country. The idea of schools partnering with farmers and agriculture organizations was cutting edge. We’ve come a long way since then. Today many schools and communities acknowledge the benefits of serving healthy, local foods in cafeterias and in educating students about farms and nutrition.

But our work is far from done. Here in the Northeast, farm to school programs are using increasingly innovative partnerships to continue expanding the impacts and reach of farm to school. Here are the stories of three programs that are setting the pace.

A first grader at Milton Elementary School (VT) learns about kale. 

Making Mental Leaps in Vermont

We know how healthy, local foods help to prevent obesity and build strong bones. But how much can they influence the mind? The Milton Town School District in Vermont aims to find out.

Milton’s farm to school program is cutting-edge in many ways (read why in Mary Stein’s blog post about her recent visit here). But with a multi-year federal grant for enhancing mental health, Milton is now pushing the boundaries even further.

Superintendent John Barone added several new positions, including grant coordinator Kristen Dillon, who is focusing on systemic connections between wellness and mental health. She works closely with farm to school coordinator Brooke Gannon and Food Service Director Steve Marinelli, breaking down walls and drawing connections between classroom, cafeteria and community services.

In the cafeteria, Steve is starting to offer yoga before school, after which students can get breakfast and go on their way—hopefully more relaxed and mentally centered. In the classroom, Brooke finds that cooking demos and activities are engaging far more students than typical classroom activities, helping to reduce behavior and attention problems among some of the most challenging students. Throughout the school, teachers are tracking behavior and attendance problems and looking for connections to nutrition and health. (Could students be acting out because they didn’t eat a healthy breakfast?) And in the community, the Milton school district is partnering with organizations including the Milton Family Community Center, Milton Youth Coalition, Howard Center for Mental Health and the Fletcher Allen hospital and health care center. Milton serves community meals once a month, inviting local mental health & physical wellness organizations to set up booths and reach families with critical information, while those families connect with each other and enjoy the bounty of local foods on their plates. 

Linking Hunger Relief and Local Foods in Massachusetts

In the Bay State, an innovative partnership between Massachusetts Farm to School and Project Bread – The Walk for Hunger, is bringing fresh veggies and local foods to the table with a healthy dose of education. As a hunger relief organization, Project Bread seeks to increase access to healthy, nutritious and sustainable food for all people. The farm to school partnership helps ensure that many of those healthy foods are coming from local farms, and that people are also gaining an appreciation for farmers and fresh local produce.

Chef Nick Speros leads a kale salad cooking demonstration at a Salem, MA summer food service site as part of Healthy Summer Harvest, a Mass. Farm to School/Project Bread partnership.

Massachusetts Farm to School partners with Project Bread’s Chefs in Schools program, bringing chefs into cafeteria kitchens to cook with staff, helping to implement local foods cooking demonstrations and taste tests at Summer Food Service Sites, and implementing Harvest of the Month activities in target school districts. They also partner with Project Bread’s Child Nutrition Outreach Program to ensure that school breakfast and summer food service programs offer local foods. 

Bringing the Sea to Schools in Maine

Portland, Maine’s Mayor Michael Brennan wants to increase locally sourced foods in city schools from 30 percent to 50 percent by 2016. Maine has a lot of great products to choose from: blueberries, potatoes, fresh veggies, local meats and cheeses. But kelp? Through a new farm to school partnership with the Portland-based company Ocean Approved, that’s on the menu too.

Ocean Approved grows kelp in the chilly waters off the Maine coast. They say kelp is one of the healthiest “super foods” around, with lots of calcium, iodine, magnesium and iron. And while most of us have probably only tried kelp in sushi rolls, it’s great in a wide variety of dishes.

Healthy? Yes. Kid-friendly? You might not think so, but thanks to creative farm to school activities like taste tests (read up on a kelp pizza taste test in the Bangor Daily News, kids are developing a taste for kelp, and it’s appearing on the menus of school cafeterias. 



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