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National Farm to School Network

News

Reflections On My Year As A Farm to School Fellow

NFSN Staff Tuesday, June 13, 2017

By Ariel Bernstein, Farm to School and Education Fellow
I began my journey at the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) twelve months ago in June 2016, and this jam-packed year has flown by. I was placed at NFSN’s Washington, D.C. office through a fellowship with the Newman’s Own Foundation. The program recruits recent college graduates, creates a cohort, and places fellows at various non-profit organizations across the country for a year of valuable, real-world experience in the philanthropic sector. Though I knew I was interested in working in food systems, NFSN has opened my eyes to the expansiveness of the field, making it my most transformative experience yet. I never thought that all of the curriculum development and garden-based learning I initiated at a small elementary school during college would lead to me advocating for local food and healthy school meals at the national level. But, it did, and I could not be more thrilled by the direction my passions have taken me.

As the Farm to School and Education Fellow, my scope of work at NFSN has centered around education. I have rotated through the organization’s various teams, experiencing all of the moving pieces of pushing farm to school forward as a national movement. With the Communications Team, I created content for National Farm to School Month and learned how to strategically manage a national campaign and utilize communications to promote and advocate for a cause. With the Programs Team, I helped implement a new organizational structure of state and territory partners, teaching me how to create and maintain relationships with key stakeholders. I attended Capitol Hill and coalition meetings with the Policy Team, exposing me to the world of food and nutrition policy that I have developed a deep passion for. I created and updated NFSN signature resources (like the Benefits of Farm to School Fact Sheet and an ESSA Toolkit), and presented about them to national audiences. Throughout the year, I learned how teamwork and self-motivation are key ingredients for accomplishing our goals. Additionally, the Newman’s Own Foundation provided my cohort with numerous workshops and trainings on topics such as team-building, workplace behavior styles and career coaching. This further enhanced my personal growth and professional journey, and added value to the way I approached my work at NFSN. 

While working at NFSN, I have seen first-hand how passion for food justice issues and farm to school, combined with tenacity and organization, can drive the coordination of a national movement that is growing exponentially and creating grassroots change across the country. Watching this has fueled my passion for this work and solidified my desire to continue advocating for local food, child nutrition, and other aspects of food systems reform. I never suspected I would want to stay in DC to work on food and nutrition policy, or go back school so soon to gain more insight on how to catalyze food system reform. But because of my time at NFSN, a new world has opened its arms and invited me in, and I finally feel like I know what I need to be doing.

As I reflect on my year’s work at NFSN, all of these things come to mind. I think about my jump from grassroots school garden work to national farm to school movement coordination. I think about knowledge I have gained and the learning process I have gone through. I think about the projects I have completed and how my work has impacted the organization. I think about the meetings I have attended and the connections I have made. Though my work has been varied and my takeaways are diverse, there is one thing that ties everything together, making it the most impactful part of my experience: the NFSN staff team. This team has given me knowledge in situations where I had room to grow, support when I needed lifting up, guidance when I felt lost, and humor when all I needed was a good laugh. It is this type of working environment that creates a productive, efficient and cohesive staff, and it has been an absolute honor to have been included in such a special team. 

To the NFSN staff: I cannot thank you enough for inviting me into your work, and guiding me though this year and into my future. You are a team of passionate warriors fighting the good fight, and I can’t wait to see where your hard work will continue to take the farm to school movement! 

Welcome, Maximilian Merrill!

NFSN Staff Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The National Farm to School Network is excited to welcome Maximilian A. Merrill, Esq. MS, to our team as Policy Director! As an environmental lawyer, policy analyst, hydrologist and farmer, Maximilian has over a decade of experience in agriculture policy and family farm advocacy at the local, state and federal levels. 

Maximilian gained his passion for agriculture and the environment while growing up in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. He has diverse educational and experiential background in agriculture, including undergraduate and graduate degrees in natural resources and hydrology from North Carolina State University, a J.D. from Vermont Law School, and professional experience as a cartographer and wetland scientist. Prior to joining NFSN, Merrill held positions with The Land Trust for Central North Carolina, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and Western Growers. While working with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Merrill designed, implemented and administered the Agricultural Development & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, which protects family farms by purchasing agricultural easements and funding agricultural development projects. He also represented agriculture stakeholders on numerous state environmental committees and commissions.

As NFSN’s Policy Director, Maximilian will lead the development and implementation of our organization’s policy priorities, cultivate policymaker and coalition partnerships, and educate and mobilize our partners, members and stakeholders around key policy issues. NFSN serves as the leading voice of the national the farm to school movement, and a principle resource on national, state and local policies that impact farm to school efforts. Maximilian will lead our continued advocacy towards the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization through the Farm to School Act, and will prepare for advocacy for the upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization.

When not on Capitol Hill, Maximilian continues to pursue his love of agriculture with regular visits to his once fallow family farm in Pennsylvania, where he spends time pounding in fence posts, reclaiming fields and raising bison. 

Maximilian is based in our Washington, D.C. office. Reach out to him with your policy questions, to brainstorm solutions to policy challenges, to share you successes or to find out how you can get involved in advocating for policy change. Send him a message or say hello at maximilian@farmtoschool.org

Food Hub, Food Truck and Food Education: Northern Colorado School District Takes Farm to School to Next Level

NFSN Staff Wednesday, November 16, 2016

By Andrea Northup, USDA Farm to School Regional Lead for the Mountain Plains Region, and Helen Dombalis, Programs Director and Interim Policy Director for the National Farm to School Network

A bin of acorn squash sits on a pallet at the Weld County School District 6 central kitchen, right next to a bin of yellow onions and a 1,000 pound tote of russet potatoes – all locally-grown.  A walk through the facility is enough to convince anyone that Weld County School District 6 is committed to scratch-cooked, locally-grown food for its 22,000 students at 35 schools.  In this rural Colorado school district, where over 40 languages are spoken at home and 66 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, fresh, tasty food is the norm – even down to the green chili, a southwestern favorite roasted in-house using three varieties of local peppers.

About a quarter of the central kitchen is dedicated to processing fresh fruits and vegetables.  Mushrooms are sliced, carrots are shredded, and onions are diced.  With funding from a USDA Farm to School Grant in 2013, this Food Hub portion of the kitchen was furnished with tables, wash stations and equipment to process local food for Weld County’s own meals and for other districts in the area.

Natalie Leffler is the Food Hub Manager at Weld County School District 6.  Her job is to coordinate partnerships with farmers, ranchers and local businesses to source as much local food as possible, defined as grown or produced within a 400 mile radius. Natalie manages an annual bid to establish relationships and contracts.  Growers must submit a food safety checklist with their bid documents, which Natalie confirms with an in-person site visit, so the district can rest assured that the local products are safe.  

Matt Poling, the school district’s Executive Chef, assures that menu planning, recipe development, and production processes maximize the use of local products.  The freezer is full of shredded local zucchini (for blending into tomato sauce), mirepoix (the age-old combination of onion, celery and carrots used as a base for soups), and other local ingredients to incorporate into meals in the off-season.  The team even prepares mashed potatoes made with local red potatoes and home-made gravy.  Locally-grown and dried pinto beans are sorted and cooked into refried beans or chili.  



Just outside the facility are four giant compost bins designed to turn food scraps from the kitchen into compost for the district’s school gardens, funded through an innovative partnership with the West Greeley Conservation District.  Sometimes El Fuego, the district’s flashy food truck, is parked outside, too.  But typically the truck is out roaming the district, serving up favorites like Baracoa street tacos and the yakisoba noodle bowl to students and school staff.

The district goes beyond local procurement – school gardens, student wellness, and food education are three major areas of focus. Plans are underway to transform a sandy, unused portion of a nearby schoolyard into an educational farm focused on student engagement and employment.  Called “Growing Grounds,” the project vision includes raised bed, an orchard, a teaching kitchen, hoop houses, and a greenhouse. Weld County School District 6 takes innovation and creativity to a new level with its farm to school program!


Inspired by Weld County School District’s 6 and their innovative farm to school programs? USDA is currently accepting applications for the Farm to School Grant Program, which assists eligible entities in implementing farm to school programs that improve access to local foods in eligible schools. Consider applying for a grant to bring more local food into school meals, promote healthy eating habits and expand markets for American farmers and producers. Applications are due December 8, 2016. 

Good Food, Great Kids

NFSN Staff Thursday, November 10, 2016
What We Can Learn from Six Organizations Advancing a Farm to Early Care and Education Approach

 Photo credit: Mark Luinenburg, courtesy of pfc Social Impact Advisors
By Gayle Peterson, pfc Social Impact Advisors, Co-founder & Senior Managing Director, and Hilda Vega, pfc Social Impact Advisors, Vice President of Programs

In a time of change, many of us reflect on our values and passions and consider the kind of community we want our children to live in. We consider various policy options and how they have (or have not) worked to improve the lives of children and families across the country. Those of us involved in the fields of healthy food access or education will be looking for supportive policies in these areas, hoping that policy makers will continue projects like Let’s Move! or increased funding for Head Start programs. We’ll also hope that current battles, like those over Child Nutrition Reauthorization, will be resolved with the best possible outcome for children’s access to healthy food. A supportive policy environment, along with ingenuity and perseverance from the early care and education community are vital components to ensuring that all of our nation’s young children have access to healthy, nutritional foods and high quality learning opportunities.

With this need in mind, pfc Social Impact Advisors, in partnership with the National Farm to School Network and the BUILD Initiative, has developed a new set of case studies that highlight best practices from service providers using farm to ECE as an approach to support health, wellness, high-quality education, and community change. Part of the Good Food, Great Kids project, these case studies explore how multiple cities and regions embarked on the journey of bringing farm to ECE to vulnerable children in Head Start programs. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned: 

  • In Minneapolis/St. Paul, we learned about Hmong farmers working with Head Start centers and other local food service providers to enliven their menus with local food. 
  • In Washington, D.C., we met with staff and children of CentroNia, a multicultural and bilingual community and education center that incorporates school gardening, a healthy food curriculum, local procurement, and on-site scratch cooking to help students connect with their food. 
  • The Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC) in Brooklyn is working to break down myths about farm to ECE by sharing their success in working with a local food hub and other partners to bring fresh food to early care programs and the greater community of Central Brooklyn. 
  • The Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative, which works across six counties in Iowa, links together diverse community members such as local colleges, human service provides, and food service provider partners works to help more children under the age of five (and their families) learn about and have affordable access to healthy food and knowledge about it. 
  • In Kansas City, Mo, two concerned community members—one a chef and the other a farmer and promoter of better access to affordable, healthy food-- worked to create a program  that offers chef-driven meals in Head Start and other educational programs, healthy food education and access for children and families, and other experiential resources for children across the city. 
  • In Philadelphia, the Norris Square Community Alliance is embarking on a strategic planning process with community members to formally incorporate a farm to ECE program targeting 700 children and striving to benefit all families and neighbors who are part of the Norris Square community. 

You can dig deeper into each of the case studies here



Accompanying these new case studies is the Good Food, Great Kids policy research report, which highlights some of the most pressing challenges faced by farm to ECE programs, such as limited funding at the national and state levels to support these activities. It also highlights needs to have the space and resources to think more intentionally about equity, family engagement, the impact of policy realities on care providers, the need for bridge-building across sectors, and the need for more research about the impact of farm to ECE on child outcomes. 

There is no one-size fits all approach to farm to ECE. Yet, the six sites featured in these new resources found that bringing together complex issues like good food and early childhood education present a new way forward to ensure a good start and stronger future for children, especially those in vulnerable neighborhoods. Their experiences offer important guidance for others hoping to make nutritious food and high-quality early childcare and education a reality in their communities. By sharing and learning from stories like these, we can create momentum, spur innovation, and generate change that will help ensure that access to healthy, nutritional food is a right, not a privilege, for all young children. 

Creating healthy food environments for Latino kids

NFSN Staff Thursday, January 21, 2016
Guest post by Lisa Ellis-Veraza, Salud America! 

Salud America! The RWJF Reach Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children has worked since 2007 to increase evidence and policy recommendations to prevent Latino childhood obesity. The 50,000 member network includes researchers, community leaders, policymakers, and other stakeholders working together to increase advocacy support and the number of Latino advocates seeking policy solutions to combat childhood obesity. See Salud America!’s research here.

High school students in El Paso aren’t only learning how to grow fruits and vegetables, they’re learning how to prepare and sell them, too. (Photo credit: Ana Suffle)

Healthy school food is a key component of growing a healthier next generation. But offering nutritious food in schools is particularly vital for our growing population of Latino students, who face higher risks of obesity and diabetes than their peers. 

According to a new research review from Salud America! The RWJF Reach Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children, Latino students are more frequently exposed to unhealthy foods in their school and neighborhood environments than their white peers. The review indicates when a school’s proximity to fast food increased, so did Latino students’ body mass index. It also suggests that Latino-majority schools tend to have weaker policies regarding school snacks and drinks, and may be less likely to implement nutritional guidelines.

This situation has dire health consequences, as it is expected 30 percent of the U.S. student population will be Latino by 2030. If obesity remains unchecked, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one of every two Latino children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. So how can we ensure healthier food environments for Latino kids?

Let’s consider school food! Most students, including Latinos, consume up to half of their daily calories at schools, and the nutritional value of the foods and beverages available at schools play a major role in influencing students’ diets and weight. School policies that reduce access to sugary snacks and drinks are likely to reduce Latino students’ consumption of unhealthy items during the school day, and positively impact student weight trends.

Michaelie Love advocated for a healthy breakfast cart at her high school in Texas.

There are many things that can be done to help drive wellness policy and system changes like these at schools. For example, student Praxina Guerra and her mentor, Cathy Lopez, advocated for hydration stations across their school’s campus in order to encourage students to drink more water and less sugary beverages. In Texas, student Michaelie Love worked in her school to offer up a healthy breakfast cart for fresh food options in the morning, and Cecil Whisenton brought healthier vending machines to her Latino-majority high school.

Farm to school initiatives can also create healthy food environments. For example, see how high school student Elena Dennis's summer school cooking camp in California brought students to local farms and taught them how to make healthy meals from scratch. Programs like Elena’s “Camp Cauliflower” are teaching kids how to grow, cook and enjoy nutritious food, planting the seeds of healthy habits for a lifetime. 

We also know students are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables when schools offer opportunities to learn in school gardens. Watch how Bowie High School’s garden in largely Latino El Paso, Texas, helped the whole community learn about healthy foods in a culturally relevant way. Or, see how teacher Lonnie Schlerandi started a school garden in Austin, Texas, that inspired students to get involved in growing produce and distributing it to school and community members.

So how can you get involved in helping create healthy food environments for Latino children? Salud America! has created an online haven for healthy change where you can become a Salud Leader and share your story, learn what changes are happening in your area, be inspired by educational videos, access research and policy briefs, sign petitions and more. 

Best of all, all of our content can be shared using social media – a primary way Latinos access health information. Once you register to be a part our network, you can access free community health reports, maps, videos, policy updates and more to drive change for Latino childhood obesity prevention. Join us, and together we can help unite the Latino voice for childhood health! 

Earlier this week, we joined Salud America for a tweetchat about ways to create healthier school environment for Latino kids. See a full recap of the conversation here

Ramping up local in upstate New York

NFSN Staff Monday, July 20, 2015

By Anna Mullen, Digital Media Associate

Saranac Lake High School students harvest celeriac at Fledging Crow Vegetables Farm.       (Photo courtesy of SLHS Green Storm) 

Before Saranac Lake Central School District (Saranac Lake, N.Y.) was awarded a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant, local produce in the cafeteria was rare. But serving local foods on special occasions like Farm to School Month had been successful at getting students excited to try new vegetables, so Food Service Director Ruth Pino was eager to do more. 

“I realized I could help young people learn about good food and healthy eating by serving them real, fresh food,” Pino says. “At our school, 36 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch. But the real challenge is that the district is very rural and spread out, so when students are hungry, there are not many options for accessing good, local food, aside from school.” Plus, she notes, “Farm to school is also about supporting local farmers, and there are many in our area.” 

Beginning this fall, three local farmers will supply the district’s five school with fresh, local produce including carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, onions and potatoes. Fresh fruit will be brought in from a nearby orchard. Other relationships are thriving as well, such as with Paul Smith’s College, whose culinary students teamed up with Pino this spring to prepare and serve locally raised chicken to the district’s students. “It’s helping support our community,” Pino says, “and students are getting excited when they see that we have new foods for them to try.” 

Less than 150 miles west of Saranac Lake, a similar initiative is taking root in New York’s Watertown City School District. In partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, Watertown was also awarded a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant for FY 2015. With the grant, Watertown set goals of incorporating more locally grown foods into its meal programs to improve student health and link nutrition to lifelong learning.  

In addition to introducing new local foods in the cafeteria, the district’s five elementary schools launched a harvest of the month initiative, where students not only learn about and try new local foods, but also meet the farmers who produce them. “A local dairy farmer came in February with a demonstration cow, and there was a butter-making station,” district Farm to School Coordinator April Neujean said. “The state dairy princess came, too!”

Students at North Elementary School learn about cow from local farmer Ron Kuck during February’s Harvest of the Month activities. (Photo courtesy of WCSD Farm to School) 

The district’s middle and high school students are learning about local food systems as well, with guest lectures on hydroponics, beneficial and invasive bugs, and robotic tilling. Furthermore, the district has planted its first school garden, giving students the opportunity to engage in growing their own food. As Neujean explains, “This education has been a good way to help students become excited about the food changes in the cafeteria. When kids have a farm to school program, they have a positive attachment to food because they know where it comes from.”

Getting kids excited about healthy eating isn’t the only benefit of these farm to school programs. What makes farm to school at Watertown and Saranac Lake school districts impressive is their drive for collaboration and growing the movement throughout upstate New York. “The community support and excitement has been remarkable,” Neujean said. The two districts have worked together to share ideas and build capacity for making more local procurement possible. And, Saranac Lake is actively encouraging nearby school districts to join them in farm to school activities. By encouraging more schools to buy local, the districts are helping open the doors to new institutional markets for local family farmers. 

Thanks to these two USDA Farm to School grantees, an entire region is poised for local food transformation. Their initiatives are helping kids develop healthy eating habits, providing new markets for farmers and building up strong partnerships that foster vibrant communities. These programs are not only ramping up local procurement in their cafeterias, but also laying the groundwork for schools across upstate New York to go local.  That’s a delicious win for students, an economic win for farmers, and an energizing win for all of upstate New York. 

Tree to School: Planting Heritage Fruit Orchards in Colorado

NFSN Staff Friday, April 24, 2015
By Anna Mullen, Communications Intern


Photo courtesy of Montezuma School to Farm Project
Happy Arbor Day! In celebration of the trees that help us breathe, we’re spotlighting a project in Colorado where students are embracing farm to school by planting fruit trees. The Montezuma School to Farm Project works with students across the high desert country of Southwest Colorado to plant heritage fruit tree orchards on school grounds that not only bring local fruits into the cafeteria, but are also helping revitalize the region’s unique fruit tree history.

Last fall, students at Cortez Middle School began planting an exact replica of a dying historic orchard in their region with 50 apple trees grafted from nearly 100-year-old stock. After receiving a USDA Farm to School Grant, an additional 25 trees were added to the orchard this spring, including nectarines, peaches, plums, pears, pluots (cross between plum and apricot) and pluerries (cross between plum and cherry). USDA Farm to School Grant funds are also being used to add cane fruits – including raspberries, blackberries, table grapes and strawberries – to the 2+ acres of production space on school grounds. 

When finished, the 75-tree orchard will increase annual production to more than 37,500 pounds of heirloom fruit for students to enjoy! And it also serves as a hands-on curriculum tool for the classroom: 
  • Science lessons cover the functions of fruit trees, grafting, water conservation and soil health
  • Math skills are learned by mapping out and installing drip irrigations systems
  • Students expand their business and entrepreneurial learning by projecting wholesale and retail sales of fruit at various markets, including their own Youth Farmers Market
  • Navajo language classes use the orchard to teach new vocabulary
Students are also learning local history in the orchard, like how Montezuma County once had a booming apple economy that delivered apples across the country via railroad. Revitalizing that history in schools has been a collaborative project between Montezuma School to Farm Project and the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP), which works to save dying varieties of heritage fruit trees only grown in the Montezuma Valley region. Along with MORP, students in Montezuma County are a playing key role in the development of local food systems and in rebuilding the historical lineage of heirloom food crops that will feed their community. 

Photo courtesy of Montezuma School to Farm Project
On Monday, the National Farm to School Network and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are heading to Washington, D.C., to tell Congress that programs like the Montezuma school heritage orchards are building more resilient communities, connecting the next generation with our agricultural history and providing teachers hands-on learning environments to inspire their students. We’re asking legislators to strengthen the highly successful USDA Farm to School Grant Program by fully incorporating the Farm to School Act of 2015 into the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization package this year

Show your support by adding your name to our citizen sign-on letter, and check back next week for more farm to school success stories here on our blog! 

Bringing farm to school, one Thursday at a time

NFSN Staff Thursday, April 09, 2015

By Jaime Lockwood, Development Director

Photos courtesy of the Center for Ecoliterary

The premise of California Thursdays is simple: encourage school districts to serve one locally sourced and freshly prepared meal per week to benefit kids, local economies and the environment.  It’s a program the Center for Ecoliteracy and Oakland Unified School District piloted during the 2013-14 school year. By October 2014, when the California Thursdays program was rolled out statewide, 15 school districts were on board. 

Despite its relative newness, California Thursdays is already demonstrating its impact. By last fall, four of the six largest school districts in California had signed up, including Los Angeles Unified with its 1,309 schools. Combined with the 14 school districts in the original cohort, these participating school districts serve 190 million meals annually – approximately 20% of school meals in California. Now with 42 school districts from across the state joining, California Thursdays is poised to make an unprecedented impact on local procurement in California.

In February, the Center for Ecoliteracy graciously invited me to a communications and media training for participating California Thursday school districts to learn more about the program. The program is designed to take much of the guesswork and behind-the-scenes research of sourcing local food out of the equation for school food programs.  It also trains school districts in communicating the value of California Thursdays across their community to garner support.

As I sat through this California Thursdays training (one of several that the districts participate in throughout the school year), it was clear that the initiative is the result of careful listening, planning and thought partnering on behalf of the Center for Ecoliteracy and school food staff from across the state. Their hard work has resulted in a comprehensive set of supports designed to address the most common challenges schools face in sourcing and preparing fresh, local food in school kitchens, including:

  • A list of California-grown/produced foods that meet the federal reimbursable guidelines – and the vendors who sell them
  • 21 recipes featuring California-grown fruits and vegetables, including nutritional information
  • Trainings to help school districts broadly communicate the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of California Thursdays to various members of their community
  • Resources in both English and Spanish to help engage parents in the discussions about school food
  • A network of school food service/nutrition directors who can reach out to each other for continuing support and ideas

California Thursdays stands out as a state-level innovation that is ripe for replication across the country. A similar program, Minnesota Thursdays, has already followed California's lead. To riff on their tag lines, what if all Thursdays were Arkansas Thursdays, West Virginia Thursdays, Rhode Island Thursdays, and Wyoming Thursdays? What if all states had initiatives that supported their schools in improving the quality of food served, building relationships with local farmers, and helping students and their communities reclaim their food heritage?

Then perhaps, one day, every day will be Local Food Day in schools. 

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