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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. 


National Farm to School Month starts now!

NFSN Staff Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Today marks the beginning of National Farm to School Month. For the next 31 days, schools and preschools across the country will celebrate the local food served in their cafeterias, the gardens in their schoolyards and the food and agriculture education happening in their classrooms. Some will engage with farm to school for the first time; others will enjoy the harvest from years of farm to school success. 

At the National Farm to School Network, we consider Farm to School Month itself to be the product of a successful harvest. Our organization was founded in 2007 to connect and strengthen the many facets of the farm to school movement, and advocating for the creation of Farm to School Month was one of our first national campaign successes. The passage of House Resolution 1655 in 2010 demonstrated the growing importance of farm to school as a means to improve child nutrition, support local economies and educate children about the origins of food.

But we didn’t stop there. We also successfully advocated for mandatory funding for farm to school grants through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and for the creation of the first-ever USDA Farm to School Census. State policy is equally import to the success of farm to school, which is why we release an annual survey of farm to school policy across the country. According to our survey, in 2012 and 2013 alone, 20 states passed farm to school legislation and 17 others introduced legislation. But there’s more to be done, and we need the support of local food advocates, child health advocates and anyone else who believes in farm to school’s potential to transform lives and communities. 

This Farm to School Month, will you help us spread the word about the importance of farm to school and the impact it is having in your community? Here’s how you can get involved: 
  • Visit our Farm to School Month page to find resources and information. 
  • #F2SMonth - Use this hashtag to share photos and stories about farm to school in your community. 
  • @FarmtoSchool - follow us on Twitter and Facebook and share our messages with your audience.  
  • Download our Farm to School Month Fact Sheet and share it with your community: parents, teachers, school nutrition professionals, producers at your local farmers’ market … anyone!
  • Use our Communications Toolkit to spread the word about your farm to school events and successes. 
  • Order promotional materials to wear and share: posters, stickers, aprons and shirts.
  • Become a member of the National Farm to School Network to stay informed about farm to school policy and events. 
  • Tell us your story: Use the Share Form on our website to ell us about farm to school in your community! Stories help us advocate for and raise awareness about farm to school.
  • Donate to support our work. The National Farm to School Network is the leading nonprofit working to connect and strengthen the farm to school movement. 

Here’s one more reason to get involved: Everyone who fills out a membership form and/or a “Share Form” on our website during October will be entered to win a drawing for $1,000 to spend on a farm to school or farm to preschool project in their community! Five additional drawing winners will also be eligible to apply for a free Project Learning Garden™ lesson kit from Captain Planet Foundation that is valued at $1,000; however, winners must have an existing elementary school garden to qualify. Check out the full contest details.

As a special offer during Farm to School Month, Organic Valley is offering a downloadable coupon for NFSN members only, which can be accessed on our members-only page. Become a member today, then sign in to our website to download your coupon!

The farm to school movement has already seen great success: Farm to school practices are in place at more than 40,000 schools in all 50 states and D.C. and in preschools across the country. This Farm to School Month, help sow the seeds for our next big harvest! 

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