When Words Aren’t Enough, But You Have Words to Say: There Is No Food Justice Without Racial Justice, Part Two

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021


By Helen Dombalis, NFSN Executive Director

I’m writing this nearly a week after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police, and after Kyle Rittenhouse murdered two people and injured a third at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha. In the words of the late and great John Lewis, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.” So I’m here to say something, even when I know words are not enough, and to do something with the privilege and power I have.

Black people are being killed, Black families and communities are being torn apart, and Black members of our nation are living in constant fear. I know words alone will not make racism and hatred stop, and yet speaking up is necessary at moments like these. My colleagues (and co-conspirators) and I have written this, this, and this in the last three months alone. How many more times is this going to happen? And why did it take us this long to even get to the point of having national attention of systemic racism when Black people have been murdered by state sanctioned killings since being kidnapped and enslaved centuries ago? It took too long to get to this moment. Looking ahead, how are we going to take responsibility for changing the future?

While words are not enough, they do make a difference. After my May 31 statement, I heard from plenty of people suggesting farm to school has nothing to do with racial justice, that our food system is colorblind, and that speaking up about George Floyd’s murder is bringing politics to an apolitical topic. I’ll say again, this simply is not true. National Farm to School Network was founded on these core values and with a vision for a just food system. Farm to school has everything to do with racial justice; our food system is immensely racist, and our country’s politics have become about which humans are valued, and which are not.

Racial justice is “the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all…[it]...goes beyond ‘anti-racism.’ It is not just the absence of discrimination and inequities, but also the presence of deliberate systems and supports to achieve and sustain racial equity through proactive and preventative measures” (from Racial Equity Tools Glossary). That’s what National Farm to School Network should be about and it’s the direction we’re going in - making our food system work for everyone, from farmers, farmer workers and producers, to children and families, school nutrition staff and educators. And until every person has the opportunity to participate equally in producing and consuming nutritious, local food, and until there are no differences in this opportunity based on race, there is work to be done in correcting the racial injustices in our food system.

When we release our new strategic plan at our Movement Meeting on October 14, we will set forth a bold goal, centered in racial justice. Because nothing less is going to accomplish our vision.

As a white Executive Director of a national nonprofit, I have many privileges. I know sitting comfortably in my home writing this, not living in fear of being killed because of what I look like, is one of them. I don’t carry the constant, exhausting burden that Black people carry always. I cannot change my skin color, but I can evolve my actions. As my colleague Krystal Oriadha told me, being an ally is about taking risk. If you aren’t taking risk, if you aren’t taking even a bit of the burden off of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, you aren’t in allyship. Another of my privileges is platforms like this. Maybe a few people will leave our movement, and that is okay. We are investing our energy in those that are aligned and want to move forward with us on this path. And I am confident we will also gain many new supporters. I heard in recent months from the critics, but I also heard from newcomers and old friends, sharing that our words inspired them. So I’ll keep using my privilege to say something, hoping it will inspire more of you to do the same.

And when it comes to the fact that I also want to do something, we’re committing to shifting power. There’s power in money. Through the second phase of NFSN’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, we made a commitment specifically to Black- and Indigeouns-led organizations, and we will continue to make these types of commitments. In this spirit, today National Farm to School Network is granting $5,000 to the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. These commitments are examples of shifting power, but we know these are not the overall solution, and we know that this is long-term work. It has taken time to build structural racism into all aspects of our society, and it’s going to take time to dismantle it. We also know we’ve been implicated in maintaining these structures. And we know we have power and privilege and are committed to channeling this into actionable steps towards a more racially just food system and society. (If you missed it before, here and here are commitments we’re making and steps we’re taking.) We’re calling on you to take this seriously and do the same. Our contributions may not be much, but little things coalesce into a big difference.

So what are you saying, what are you doing? Join me. Join us. Make a difference today.

A Fresh Take on Dietary Guidelines Points to Need for Farm to School

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021


Photo by Harshal S. Hirve on Unsplash

By Karen Spangler, NFSN Policy Director

In August, National Farm to School Network submitted comments on the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee, which reviews new scientific evidence about diet's impact on health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), reviewed by an advisory committee every five years, provide the foundation for the federal government’s recommendations to the public about eating patterns that lead to better health outcomes.

The DGA are crucially important because their recommendations to promote or limit certain types of foods inform the nutrition standards for federal programs, including child nutrition programs.The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 ensured that school meal program standards are aligned with the DGA. Over the last ten years, as school menus have changed to meet the DGA standards, school meals have included more fruit, more servings and varieties of vegetables, more whole grains, and less saturated fat and sodium. A recent summary of research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation highlights the impact of these changes on short-term and long-term health and educational performance, particularly for low-income students.

This review of the scientific evidence from the Advisory Committee offers recommendations to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) for updating the existing dietary guidelines. We’re excited by these new areas of focus, and in our comments have highlighted for the Secretaries that farm to school and farm to early care and education (ECE) activities can help achieve these recommendations.

Focus on Overall Dietary Pattern
The report notes a dietary approach that promotes holistic, lifelong positive overall dietary quality leads to better long-term health. The Committee comments that, in general, healthy dietary patterns emphasize vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and seafood, all of which are currently under-consumed by Americans. Farm to school and farm to ECE activities offer proven strategies to increase immediate fruit and vegetable consumption. Research shows participation in farm to school and ECE activities increases children’s fruit and vegetable consumption by up to 1.3 servings per day. As the Committee notes, the flexibility within these patterns offers opportunities to incorporate traditional and culturally relevant foods, which connect children with their local food system and strengthen cultural and social connections in the community. Similarly, exploring local and seasonal foods through nutrition education and food service encourages kids to meet the dietary objectives recommended by the Committee within an accessible, culturally relevant frame.

Recognition of Early Childhood as a Key Developmental Period
For the first time, the Committee focused its review on nutrition in the earliest stages of life, concluding that this period of development is crucial to health later in life. The food environment in early childhood impacts long-term health directly, through key nutrients, and indirectly through shaping taste preferences and food choices. We know that farm to ECE activities can help with both of these aspects. In addition to local food procurement, educational and hands-on activities also  increase students’ willingness to choose healthier options at school meals and influence healthier food behaviors throughout their lifespan and in home environments.

Health Implications of Racial Injustice in the Food System
Commendably, the Committee notes the persistent health problems that food insecurity presents for our country. In addition to calling on USDA and HHS to support programs that provide low-income people with the resources to meet DGA, in our comments, we highlighted the historic and ongoing racial injustice in our food system that leads to these health inequities. We knew before the Covid-19 pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter protests that our food system is rife with racial inequities and that the current public health crisis has only exacerbated them. Our nation’s economy and our agricultural system are built on a foundation of racism and exploitation. These inequities in our food system contribute to economic and health inequalities: the same people that provide labor in our food system often can’t afford nourishing food for themselves and their families. As a result, Black, Latinx, and Native American communities are significantly more likely to face hunger and food insecurity than White individuals, and to suffer from diet-related diseases like diabetes. The Committee chose not to review scientific evidence on how the food environment and the overall food system impact health, which present a major shortcoming of their final report. Food system factors, including systemic racism and environmental justice, are key to dietary health.

The next step is for USDA and HHS to consider the evidence reviewed by the Committee and turn this scientific review into actionable recommendations for federal programs and for the general public. We have encouraged USDA and HHS to consider farm to school activities as a proven strategy for helping child nutrition programs meet these goals, and to foster healthier lives for our kids and communities.


Read our full comments here.

Leadership (in a) Crisis

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Tracey Starkovich, NFSN Operations & Events Manager, and Simone Washington, Lawyers for Children and NFSN Advisory Board Member

The current state of the country, in the midst of the COVID-19 public health crisis and blatant racial inequities and police brutality, highlights the critical need for real leadership. While illness, stress and racial justice movements rise, the opportunity is ripe for developing and supporting authentic leaders who are focused on the values that will move our country, and our food system, forward. These values include:

  • Abolishing racism,
  • Environmentally regenerative, sustainable, and just local agriculture,
  • Equitable food production, distribution and service at all levels,
  • Just pay and healthy working conditions for farmworkers, and
  • Safe and justice-based school systems.

There is a lot of work to be done and we need to examine our leadership development methods to move us beyond the status quo.

As the farm to school movement joins others who have already been doing this work, and we organize and mobilize action, what approaches to leadership and leadership development will make the most impact? What can we learn from other movements and our nation’s history about raising up effective leaders?

One path towards leadership development throughout the farm to school movement and broader food system is to examine six leadership approaches and how they can impact change and move us towards justice, building a stronger and more equitable society for us all. Each approach has its own set of benefits and goals, but share strong similarities rooted in a set of core values - collaboration, cooperation, and shared accountability -  that will help us create a new way forward together.  

The heart of National Farm to School Network is the Collective Impact approach - we continuously aim to build a system where all of us are stronger together than any one of us can be apart. This approach is more likely to solve complex problems than if a single entity or stakeholder were to approach the same problem(s) on its own. The diversity of the stakeholders allows for multiple perspectives to be explored and for resources shared to address the issue. This approach really creates accountability and mutuality, and therefore stakeholders must depend on the strengths of one another and the commitment to achieving a goal to be successful. This is the epitome of the “there is no ‘I’ in Team’” mantra. We must band together to make the necessary impact if we want to make real sustainable change in our communities.

Farm to school work also lends itself to a Diffused Leadership (or Distributed Leadership) approach, which holds every stakeholder as a valued co-producer and change agent. Farm to school work requires partnerships and collaboration, and there are benefits to not having a single leader - it is a shift from a traditional “power over” dynamic to a “power with” paradigm.


This type of leadership empowers people to own and act on issues rather than simply be followers and allows for emerging leaders to develop their skills. Many of the state networks and alliances that have been formed around the country ascribe to this leadership style, one example would be the New Mexico Farm to School Alliance. The New Mexico Alliance shares leadership across many BIPOC individuals and organizations, working to elevate significant involvement from the communities most impacted by the local food system and its inequities.

If farm to school seeks to be a truly justice focused movement, we need to implement Nontraditional Inclusive Leadership, which uplifts the voices of those with lived experience, with a focus on the unheard voice. It is equity in practice - creating space for people who historically not been included in high-stake decision-making processes. This approach moves away from assumptive solutions towards those that are rooted in reality, while also increases cultural competency beyond just the theoretical. The centering of whose voice is heard and who is seen as a leader shifts away from the expected and toward the experienced. This leadership style can be seen in work of the Native Youth Food Sovereignty Alliance, which is led by and created for Tribal youth. In addition to their own Alliance they have also created this partnership alongside Intertribal Agriculture Council and in conjunction with a youth voice. They show us that youth participation should not be an afterthought or an accommodation to be made, but stands front and center as its own leadership power - when we allow that power to be shifted to others.

For the past year, the National Farm to School Network has been engaged in a strategic planning process for the future of the movement that follows Adaptive Leadership, recognizing that there are many levers of change at all levels - with an emphasis on non-linear. This style generates innovation and fosters learning while allowing for creative problem solving and testing out ideas. It highlights everyone’s strengths and champions diversity while viewing challenges as an opportunity for evolution and sometimes revolution. The key to this approach is buy-in from various stakeholders as it’s an ongoing process and requires various lift points to keep the work moving forward. Vermont Farm to School has implemented this leadership style through its strategic mapping project – you can learn more about that here.

The work of the Native American Agriculture Fund, led by Janie Hipp, NFSN Advisory Board Member, shows us Ecosystem Leadership, keeping the focus on a larger purpose and motivation to achieve a common goal, working across communities and breaking down silos. This approach is not transactional, it’s transformational in that it's not just focused on addressing a problem, but it’s focused on creating a positive environment to support lasting change. It recognizes the intersectional nature of complex problems and seeks to find solutions that are generative. It also disrupts ineffective and/or structural biased systems. NAAF works across Tribal communities, Tribal needs, and Tribal support organizations to assist existing and aspiring Native farmers and ranchers. Its focus is not limited, it’s intentionally broad to create an entirely different environment for success.

Glyen Holmes, founder of the New North Florida Cooperative, farmer hero and a true father of farm to school has been a shining example of Asset-Based Leadership for decades. Glyen, and this leadership style, sees the potential for change, looking carefully at what is currently working and what could work. It includes the ability to reframe challenges as opportunities for evolution and progress. If people can see a light at the end of the tunnel they will remain engaged in the process of pursuing change. When you decrease your focus on what is wrong (deficit-based thinking) and increase your focus on what is right (Asset-Based Thinking), you build enthusiasm and energy, strengthen relationships, and move people and productivity to the next level.

The current state of our country is giving us the opportunity to pause and really reassess our leadership styles and development approaches – what is working and what is possible? What ways can you shift your approach to build a more equitable and inclusive system? Who are the potential leaders in your community whose voices have been muffled? If 2020 is teaching us anything, it’s that our old ways of thinking and doing haven’t been advancing justice and health for all communities, so what will we do now to create the future we all dream of? Now is the time to shift the power to create a new equitable reality – let’s get working.

If you’re interested in digging in deeper on any of these leadership approaches we suggest the following resources:

Collective Impact:
Collective Impact (Stanford Social Innovation Review-SSIR)
The Dawn of Systems Leadership (SSIR)
The Collective Impact Forum
What is Collective Impact (Community Resource Toolbox)

Diffused/Distributed Leadership:
Diffused Leadership (Positive Mindful Leader)
Distributed Leadership in a Nutshell (Youtube video)

Nontraditional Leadership:
Nontraditional Approaches to Developing Nontraditional Leadership (Leadership Learning Community)
Investing in Community Leaders (Youtube Video)
Inclusive Leadership Matters (Youtube Video)

Adaptive Leadership:
Adaptive Leadership- Introduction (YouTube Video)
Adaptive Leadership (toolshero)
Adaptive Leadership Resource Page (Tamarack Institute)

Ecosystem Leadership:
What is Ecosystem Leadership? (Medium)
Ecosystem Leader (Learning as Leadership)

Asset-Based Leadership:
Asset-Based Leadership (LinkedIn SlideShare)
Leading from the Bottom-Up: Lessons Learnt in Asset-Based Leadership (Church Urban Fund)

New Ways to Farm to School: Georgia-Feeding Families with Hand, Heart, + Soul

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Recognizing the importance of adapting and innovating in this challenging time, we're highlighting five new models that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic to promote and support farm to school, farm to early care and education (ECE), and farm to food bank. Read on for  insights, lessons learned, and ideas for new partnership and collaboration that can keep farm to school moving during a time when everything feels like it's changing.


Photo courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center

Story submitted by: Stacie McQuagge, Farm to ECE Educator at Little Ones Learning Center located in Forest Park, Georgia.

Little Ones Learning Center’s Executive Director is Wande Okunoren-Meadows who is serving her first year on the National Farm to School Network Advisory Board.

Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Georgia is working hard to adapt their programs and services to meet the needs of the children and families they serve. To continue to provide fresh, local foods to children the Center’s chef is onsite preparing meals using fresh ingredients sourced locally, including from the center’s own garden. When children aren’t on site, the Center features Tasty Tuesdays via Zoom with the Garden Educator. The ingredients are sent home with families the week before so that the participating children can sample the foods at home during the Zoom call. Some of the foods sampled have been berry & yogurt parfaits, blueberry bark, Texas Caviar, and blueberry juice. In addition to Tuesday taste tests, the Center hosts Funtastic Fridays where the Wellness Educator, Stacie McQuagge, hosts a weekly activity for students based on the Harvest of the Month.


Photo courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center

To extend the Center’s farm to ECE educational program for children at home, Little Ones Learning Center is partnering with the Small Bites Adventure Club for a pilot program which will involve distributing Taste Test kits to the preschool age children who are at home and cannot visit the Center.


Photo courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center

For the families at the Center, as well as families with young children in the community, Little Ones has been distributing farm fresh produce through the Hand, Heart + Soul Project's Farmers to Families Food Box. This program involves partnership with farmers, ranchers, specialty crop producers, food processors and distributors, and non-profit organizations to ensure that all Americans have access to the fresh and wholesome food they need during the COVID-19 national emergency. Through this partnership, Little Ones is providing families in the community farm fresh produce every Thursday in July, for 6 weeks. They anticipate distributing about 300 boxes per week.

To hear more about the experience of Little Ones Learning Center staff amidst the COVID-19 crisis and how we can all learn and grow from the lessons learned during the pandemic, check out NFSN’s Advisory Board Perspectives interview series with Wande Okunoren-Meadows and the Little Ones Learning Center team.

New Ways to Farm to School: Vermont-A Community Collaboration to Address Hunger

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Recognizing the importance of adapting and innovating in this challenging time, we're highlighting five new models that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic to promote and support farm to school, farm to early care and education (ECE), and farm to food bank. Read on for  insights, lessons learned, and ideas for new partnership and collaboration that can keep farm to school moving during a time when everything feels like it's changing.


Sheila Humphreys (left) of Food Connects and Ali West (right), WSESD Food Service Director and Fresh Picks Cafe, unload food for the first week of the weekend foodbox program. Photo courtesy of Conor Floyd

Story submitted by: Conor Floyd, Farm to School Program Manager at Food Connects in Brattleboro, Vermont.

In Brattleboro, Vermont, there is a strong network of anti-hunger organizations that provides relief to families both before the COVID-19 pandemic and especially now. Organized through the Hunger Council, the network collaborates to best meet the growing food security needs of its community.  

"Many people are needing help for the first time,” noted Christine Colascione, of Foodworks. “Navigating the charitable food system can be difficult for many—either knowing who to call or the stigma associated with accessing help.”

On a Hunger Council call, Sheila Humphreys of Food Connects wondered about the needs that families were communicating with Ali West, Brattleboro Town Food Service Director,  and whether families were being served by Foodworks or if they were falling through the cracks. Out of those questions, an idea began to take shape. Could Foodworks and the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) meal program work together to determine which families were not already receiving regular food deliveries from Foodworks, and launch a new, collaborative program to deliver food to these families through the school meal program delivery system?



Members of the Food Team pose for a physically distant photo. The team consists of staff from Food Connects, the VT Foodbank, Foodworks, and Fresh Picks Cafe. Photo courtesy of Conor Floyd

Within a week, a new “Food Team” was formed with staff from WSESU Food Service, Foodworks, Food Connects, and the Vermont Foodbank, and they quickly came up with a plan. Using Foodworks’ existing account with the Foodbank, and with additional grant funding supplied by the Foodbank, Christine launched a new delivery program to families, managed and distributed by Ali West via the Academy School meal site.

"Through our existing relationships with area schools and local charitable food organizations, Food Connects was able to build upon existing systems and cover a nutritional gap in our community. This was only possible with the help of our amazing partners and we're proud of how quickly our community jumped into action." - Conor Floyd, Food ConnectsThe Food Team was able to reflect on the systems and steps that were in place that supported the rapid deployment of folks and resources to meet the needs of over 130 families. Their reflection includes the following recommendations:

  • Start with existing connections
  • Identify key action teams
  • Leverage existing resources
  • Think about sustainability


Read more about this initiative from Food Connects.

New Ways to Farm to School: Virginia-Virtual Taste Tests

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Recognizing the importance of adapting and innovating in this challenging time, we're highlighting five new models that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic to promote and support farm to school, farm to early care and education (ECE), and farm to food bank. Read on for  insights, lessons learned, and ideas for new partnership and collaboration that can keep farm to school moving during a time when everything feels like it's changing.



Photo courtesy of Project GROWS

Story Submitted by: Nichole Barrows, Director of Education at Project GROWS in Staunton, Virginia

Project GROWS is an educational, nonprofit organization with a mission to improve the health of children and youth in Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County, Virginia through garden-based education and access to healthy food. With a 10 acre farm producing 12,000+ pounds of food each year, Project GROWS impacts children and families throughout Virginia.

Kids eat their produce at the farm during field trips and summer camps, in school cafeterias year-round, and for special Farm to School Tastings. Individuals and families can find Project GROWS’ produce at the Staunton-Augusta Health Department Farmer’s Market, the Youth-Run Farm Stand at the Boys & Girls Club, or at partner organizations like the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. Over 20 families each year are a part of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share program, where members pick up seasonal, fresh Project GROWS produce. So, when the pandemic forced schools to close, field trips to be stopped, and summer camps to be canceled there was a need to continue to provide healthy, local food options for children and families.


Project GROWS Food Access Manager, Megan Marshall, assists Staunton City Schools School Nutrition Program in handing out hundreds of meals at Shelburne Middle School.
Photo courtesy of
Project GROWS Facebook

Project GROWS provided on-the-ground logistical support to the Staunton City School Nutrition Program’s meal delivery service to ensure a seamless delivery system to children and families during COVID-19 school closures. Additionally, Project GROWS provided freshly harvested and packaged local produce (spring mix and Hakurei turnips!) from the farm to families through the school’s meal delivery service. To support families in eating local, Project GROWS provided a one pager of nutrition information and weekly recipes for that week’s ingredients.


A photo of the meal kits created and distributed, courtesy of Project GROWS

To continue to support students remotely, Project GROWS established a virtual Harvest of the Month vegetable tasting. Included on the recipe handouts that accompanied the school meals, was a QR code that families used to access an informational video and resources about the vegetable of that month. These resources were available online to download in both English and Spanish.


Megan Marshall, Director of Food Access, shows how to prepare Project GROWS' Turnip Stir-Fry recipe.
Photo courtesy of Project GROWS

By bringing this program into a virtual format for students to view in their homes, Project GROWS hopes to creatively continue their  Farm to School mission of connecting kids to fresh produce and educating them about the farm where it was grown!


New Ways to Farm to School: Utah-Farmers Feeding Utah

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Recognizing the importance of adapting and innovating in this challenging time, we're highlighting five new models that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic to promote and support farm to school, farm to early care and education (ECE), and farm to food bank. Read on for  insights, lessons learned, and ideas for new partnership and collaboration that can keep farm to school moving during a time when everything feels like it's changing.


Photo courtesy of Utah Farm Bureau via the Salt Lake Tribune

Story submitted by: Kate Wheeler, Child Nutrition/Farm to School Specialist with Utah State Board of Education in Salt Lake City, Utah. Kate is the National Farm to School Network’s Core Partner in Utah.

Due to supply chain disruptions as the pandemic churns around the country, farmers have had to destroy crops, dump milk, and smash eggs as they are unable to sell to their typical restaurant and school vendors. In an effort to avoid waste and feed the thousands of hungry children and families in Utah, the Utah Farm Bureau has created the Farmers Feeding Utah partnership to donate excess or unsold food from Utah farms to communities in need. The goal of Farmers Feeding Utah is to connect Utahns in need with safe and locally-grown food.

“Farmers and ranchers have been in just a crazy moment through all of this,” said Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau. “It’s been devastating to some of our industries, and one of the industries that’s been hurt the most is the sheep industry.”


Photo courtesy of Utah Farm Bureau via the Salt Lake Tribune

Volunteers help distribute donated sheep in Montezuma Creek in May 2020, as part of the Farmers Feeding Utah program.

Farmers Feeding Utah identified a particularly vulnerable population in Utah-- its sheep ranchers. The ranchers have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic in terms of hiring sheep herders and selling their lamb to restaurants. Due to the pandemic, Utah’s sheep ranchers have been unable to bring in their herders from Peru and Chile this year and most of the lamb they sell is to restaurants, which have shuttered around the country and nearly 25% in Utah alone. In about one months time, the initiative raised enough money, mostly from grassroots donors, to pursue its first project: purchasing 16,000 pounds of lamb from local farmers and 500 live sheep from Utah ranchers and donating them to families on the Navajo Nation.


Read more on this initiative in the Salt Lake Tribune and visit Farmers Feeding Utah to learn more and how to get involved.

New Ways to Farm to School: Maryland-Facetime with a Farmer

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

From Vermont to Georgia and Utah to Virginia (and thousands of places in between) farm to school efforts are rapidly adapting to promote community-grown food and the health and wellbeing of children, families, farms and communities. There is no one magic formula to help children feel more connected while social distancing, support families in home gardening and nutrition education, or address food insecurity, but that has not stopped folks from around the country from stepping up to meet the needs of their communities.

Recognizing the importance of adapting and innovating in this challenging time, we're highlighting five new models that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic to promote and support farm to school, farm to early care and education (ECE), and farm to food bank. Read on for  insights, lessons learned, and ideas for new partnership and collaboration that can keep farm to school moving during a time when everything feels like it's changing.



Photo courtesy of Farm Alliance Baltimore

Story submitted by Anne Rosenthal, Farm to School Programming Specialist at Great Kids Farm in Baltimore, Maryland

Great Kids Farm (GKF), a 33-acre property of abundant fields and forest just west of the city, was originally bought by Rev. George Freeman Bragg as a school and foster home for young boys from Baltimore City. The school provided kids not only with educational opportunities but also with practical experience in agriculture and other trade skills. The land was then purchased by Baltimore City Public Schools in the 1950s, and then in 2008 a campaign clean up and restore began. Currently the land is owned and operated by Baltimore City Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services and used by Great Kids Farm in partnership with Baltimore City Schools as a space to help students connect deeply to the sources of their food, and commit to leading their communities towards a healthier, greener future.

“The students were super engaged and really enjoyed seeing the different plants and animals! It was such a great opportunity to connect the learning that they're doing virtually to real life!” – Hannah Kennedy, first grade teacher at Elmer A. Henderson: after a Facetime the Farmer session.


A Facetime the Farmer Session at GFK. Photo courtesy of Laura Genello

With daily on-farm programs cancelled at GKF, the farm to school staff has sought new ways to reach students. In coordination with the Living Classroom Foundation and Friends of Great Kids Farm, GKF created more than 3,000 windowsill garden activity kits which included tomato and pepper seedlings sourced from produce grown at Great Kids Farm. These kits and seedlings were distributed directly to summer programs serving students.


Photo of one of the 3,000 windowsill garden activity kits developed by GKF staff.
Photo courtesy of Laura Genello

A regular part of the GKF experience for students is curriculum-aligned field trips to the farm, themed student summits with expert-led workshops, and paid work opportunities for highschoolers. While much of the in-person programming has been suspended due to the pandemic, GKF and the farm to school staff has been able to continue to engage students in farm-based education through "Facetime the Farmer" sessions. During these sessions GKF provides live, virtual farm tours, aiming to align with the students current curriculum. GKF and farm to school staff have also started a Youtube series, What’s GROWIN on @ the Farm? to engage students and families while providing a glimpse of the farm from their homes.

Advisory Board Perspectives: Wande Okunoren-Meadows and Little Ones Learning Center Team

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

This post is part of National Farm to School Network's new series of interviews with members of our Advisory Board about the impacts, challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 has brought about for the farm to school movement. 


Photo Credit: Linden Tree Photography (courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center) 

Name: Wande Okunoren-Meadows

Title: Executive Director

Organization: Little Ones Learning Center

Location: Forest Park, GA 

First-year on the National Farm to School Network Advisory Board


Little Ones Learning Center Team: Stacie McQuagge (Farm to ECE Educator), Pang Skelton (Little Lions Farm Stand), and Luyanda Koboka (Master Gardener)


Wande Okunoren-Meadows and her dedicated team at Little Ones Learning Center joined Sadé Collins, NFSN Programs Fellow, to discuss the COVID-19 emergency in early care and education (ECE) centers. Wande and partners share how Little Ones Learning Center is using innovation in farm to ECE and the importance of building resilient and equitable community food systems during this time. 


The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


“There continues to be a need for wholesome grab-and-go options and funding to support farmers providing local produce and ECE providers continuing nutrition education. Food banks are not enough.” -Wande Okunoren-Meadows



Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Georgia has continued to live up to their motto “Where Children Grow. Serving the Child, Family and Greater Community” even during unprecedented times. Over the years, the center has prioritized healthy eating and bringing their community together to educate parents and children on healthier food choices. Farm to early care and education (ECE) is part of their holistic environment where young learners are able to plant, care for and harvest their own foods on-site. This hands-on engagement provides nutrition education and the promotion of local foods.

Sade: Briefly tell us about your current professional role and your connection to National Farm to School Network. 


Wande: I am the Executive Director of Little Ones Learning Center in Clayton County. The center is located in the suburb area of metro Atlanta where the Child Well Being Index is the lowest of the metro Atlanta counties. The index provides a sense of the direction of overall well-being and resources that are needed to tackle complex issues and drive sustainable change. Supporting child and family well-being during the pandemic has called attention to opportunities for positive change and that there is much work that needs to be done in the area in which the center resides.


Stacie: I have served as the Farm to ECE Educator and the lead for farm to ECE programming for the last 3-4 years.


Pang: I am the assistant to everyone at the center, I do everything. 


Luyanda: I serve as the Master Gardener and am responsible for Tasty Tuesdays.


“Teaching children about social distancing, as the children are transitioning back to the center, is hard because they don’t understand why they cannot be with their friends and other teachers.” -Pang


Sade: Tell us about how the COVID-19 emergency has impacted your work. 


Wande: The COVID-19 emergency has impacted the work of the center in a way that is uncertain.  The impacts have been felt by the community, the local food banks, and the children. Neighbors inquire about receiving food from the center from time to time to help feed their families and local food banks and meal sites were initially not accessible for all children in the area which presented equity challenges. Now, due to public outcry, local administrators have changed their practices to include young children. There continues to be a need for wholesome grab-and-go options and funding to support farmers providing local produce and ECE providers continuing nutrition education. Food banks are not enough.


Stacie: It has been difficult not being able to see the children and children not being able to see us, so we are trying to make things as normal and accessible as possible for children and parents. Our chef is still preparing fresh foods while using fresh ingredients sourced locally as well as from our own school garden. To adapt our Farm to ECE program for COVID-19, we have been using virtual platforms to do taste test activities and learning games with the children that are not able to be at the center, such as Funtastic Fridays, where children do a different activity each week based on the Harvest of the Month. Some of the foods they have made and sampled are berry and yogurt parfaits, blueberry bark, Texas Caviar, and blueberry juice through the USDA Grow It, Try It, Like It kit. To extend our Farm to ECE educational program for the children at home, we are working with the Small Bites Adventure Club for a pilot program at home.  For the families at our center, as well as the families in the community, we have been distributing farm fresh produce through the Hand, Heart + Soul Project's Farmers to Families Food Box program. This program is providing families in the community farm fresh produce every Thursday, for 6 weeks, distributing about 300 boxes per week. [Note: the Hands, Heart + Soul Project received a grant from National Farm to School Network's COVID-19 Relief Fund.]


Luyanda: At this time, I am really missing the children, especially gardening and talking with the young learners about harvesting. Overall, there is a void.


Pang: The number of children at the center has decreased and more families are staying home which has impacted the centers house and teachers schedules. Teaching children about social distancing, as the children are transitioning back to the center, is hard because they don’t understand why they cannot be with their friends and other teachers.


Sade: What inequities and challenges are you seeing as a result of the COVID-19 emergency?  


Wande:  It is frustrating, it is inequity, upon inequity. Grab-and-go, shelf table food while convenient, is not always the most nutrient dense and nutritious, wholesome food to sustain kids long term.


“Getting businesses to help our communities with resources such as food is our goal. We want to provide children with healthy foods such as fresh produce from gardening and the food that is offered isn’t always nutritious and healthy.”-Stacie



Sade: Thinking about what has helped Little One’s Learning Center continue to offer enriching nutrition education and resources for young learners and families, what relationships have been meaningful and impactful during this time?


Wande: Existing relationships, networks and partnerships have provided critical support to Little Ones Learning Center’s work during this time.  Georgia Organics, a non-profit providing direct support to small and organic farmers, has been a great partner in engaging in meaningful dialogue. Additionally, funding from National Farm to School Network will allow the center to purchase more boxes from Small Bites Adventure Club, an organization that offers farm-to-table cooking kits for classrooms, to introduce local foods to kids. 


Stacie: Getting businesses to help our communities with resources such as food is our goal. We want to provide children with healthy foods such as fresh produce from gardening and the food that is offered isn’t always nutritious and healthy. Also, young learners are not getting time in the garden and have to wear masks which is different for small children. Social interaction is also missing because the classrooms are no longer gardening together. 


“Emerging out of COVID-19, there is the idea of understanding collaborations through “equitable dinners”....the sharing of different perspectives would lead to meaningful collaborations.”-Wande



Sade: What are you doing now, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, that you hope to keep moving forward, once we emerge out of an emergency state?


Wande: Emerging out of COVID-19, there is the idea of understanding collaborations through “equitable dinners” by bringing various stakeholders such as health, educators, farmers and parents together to have dialogue. This dialogue would be accompanied by facilitated sessions that are about how the different worlds intersect. For example, explaining monocrop farming, genetically modified organisms and multigenerational farming to parents. The sharing of different perspectives would lead to meaningful collaborations.


Stacie: Emerging out of COVID-19, there is interest in continuing online taste testing monthly or weekly for family night to keep families engaged.


Luyanda: This time has allowed for focusing on lesson planning and revamping priorities at the center. Overall it has been great seeing parents engage more on social media and through other online platforms.


Pang: Communication through social media has been helpful in engaging families. A weekly newsletter has also been created to keep families informed of what is happening at the center and other local opportunities. I hope all parents support local farmers moving forward. 



“Kids need to know how to grow their own food and understand that they can do many things on their own without approval or waiting on others to "save" them. The less we have to get "permission" from the government or others to do things that we know are good and beneficial to children and for communities, the better.”-Wande 



Sade: What has this crisis shown you about our country’s food system?


Wande: The crisis has uncovered the food system needs work. The “Stay-at-Home” mantra is not applicable to all. It has shown that grocery store workers are essential and they cannot stay at home. Child care centers are still open and needed for people who are working outside of home. 


Sade: Why is farm to ECE, and more broadly, community food systems, so important right now?


Wande: Kids need to know how to grow their own food and understand that they can do many things on their own without approval or waiting on others to "save" them. The less we have to get "permission" from the government or others to do things that we know are good and beneficial to children and for communities, the better. There is no reason that there should be regulations around children eating from the garden or purchasing from their onsite garden. It's nature! If we can reach the kids now, at the foundation, we can change the wiring of a generation. 


Stacie: Farm to ECE was very important before COVID-19 and it has come into play because children know where food comes from. Farm to ECE concepts are also translating from the center to homes.


Pang: Children are missing out on essential needs. 


To learn more about the experience of Little Ones Learning Center staff amidst the COVID-19 crisis, watch Wande testify to members of Congress serving on the DNC planning committee.


Advisory Board Perspectives: Miguel Villarreal

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

This post is part of National Farm to School Network's new series of interviews with members of our Advisory Board about the impacts, challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 has brought about for the farm to school movement.


Name: Miguel Villarreal
Title: Director of Child Nutrition
Organization: San Ramon Valley Unified School District
Location: Danville, CA
Miguel served on the National Farm to School Network Advisory Board from 2017-2019, and as the Advisory Board Chair in 2019.

Jessica Gudmundson, NFSN Senior Director of Finance and Operations, sat down with Miguel for a conversation about how the COVID-19 emergency has impacted his work as a Food Service Director, the challenges and innovations he’s seen, and what all of this means for the future of farm to school and our food system.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“When I moved out to California [nearly 20 years ago] and started working, I still hadn’t heard of farm to school but what I realized was that the community I was working in had over 60 nearby organic farms and there wasn't any local food being brought into schools. And I thought, something’s very wrong. I didn’t know what it was but I knew that something wasn’t right and I needed to figure it out. That is what ultimately led me to farm to school.”


Jessica: Welcome Miguel. To start, briefly tell me about your professional role and your relationship to NFSN.

Miguel: I’m Miguel Villarreal, Child Nutrition and Warehouse Director, with the San Ramon Valley Unified School District where I've been spending the last year. Prior to that, I was in Novato Unified School District where I spent 17 years. I also spent 20 years in Texas as a School Food Service Director before moving out to California. And honestly, the concept of farm to school was never a thought when I was in Texas. When I moved out to California and started working, I still hadn’t heard of farm to school but what I realized was that the community I was working in had over 60 nearby organic farms and there wasn't any local food being brought into schools.

And I thought, something’s very wrong. I didn’t know what it was but I knew that something wasn’t right and I needed to figure it out. That is what ultimately led me to farm to school. Many different allied groups I met along the way influenced a lot the decisions I've made over the years in how I looked and thought about school foodservice. And it led me to the National Farm to School Network where I spent 6 years as an Advisory Board member.

It’s one of the best organizations I’ve been involved with because of the people that are involved. The way I thought and looked at things have changed over the years. I’ve said before to you Jessica, 90% of my decisions are now made with my heart and 10% with my head. When I met folks from the National Farm to School Network - not only people who work for the organization but all people involved - I realized they also made decisions the same way. We do what we do because we care.

Jessica: I couldn’t agree more. People make up this movement and people are the heart of this work. We do this work because we value everybody’s lives along the food chain. We’re going to talk about COVID-19 and farm to school. How has this emergency impacted your work as a Food Service Director?

“The one thing that Food Service Directors are and food service programs are, is accustomed to change. We adapt well to many different circumstances.”

Miguel: My work and every other Food Service Director across the country. It’s turned our lives upside down. The one thing that Food Service Directors are and food service programs are, is accustomed to change. We adapt well to many different circumstances. In fact, I've said many times, it’s a curse in a way. We make it happen, regardless of what’s going on. We put food on the table for kids every school day and nobody has any idea how it got done. All they know is that children got fed.

COVID-19 was not any different for many Food Service Directors. We adapted literally overnight. We changed our programs. We went from full salad bars to no touch points, overnight.

Jessica: Have you implemented anything new that you’d like to see continue moving forward?

Miguel: First, I’m hoping the recognition of the importance of the work that’s being done in schools will continue moving forward. The Child Nutrition folks have stepped up to the challenge to feed America’s children during a pandemic.

We’re also seeing more education and meal connection in our programs. I was hearted to see child nutrition professionals on the cover of TIME magazine. When was the last time that happened? Never! They are really essential employees. Why is that so important? For years it was just the minimum - hours worked, salaries earned. I hope that changes. That school administrators, states and federal governments recognize the importance of the School Child Nutrition employees’ work.

Secondly, using local food and focusing not only on locally grown, but also more importantly making sure that food is being produced as organic or regenerative farming, or both. We’re not only taking care of the health of our children; we are taking care of the health of our environment and the planet in general. I’d like to see that continue moving forward.

“Moving forward, I’m hoping we have that universal meal program mentality where we are providing to anyone that needs it. Not just providing food but the best food we can - organic, food good for our children’s health, the environment’s health, and the health of animals.”

Third, serving everybody universal free meals. This is happening right now. We’re seeing some families come by and pick up meals that may not be on the National School Lunch Program. And we’re also seeing families not participating. Is it because they don’t like our food? No, it’s because they feel like they don’t need our services right now. They haven’t lost a job. They’re not in that situation. We’re providing a service for families that need it. Moving forward, I’m hoping we have that universal meal program mentality where we are providing to anyone that needs it. Not just providing food but the best food we can - organic, food good for our children’s health, the environment’s health, and the health of animals. All that together contributes to a healthier community and society. Not just for our own personal health, but also our economic health as a society.

Jessica: We have also seen some of the exciting things you mentioned in response to COVID-19, and we want to see them continue as we move forward too. The future feels uncertain at this point in time and I know there’s a lot of speculation about what school will look like in the fall. Are kids going back to school? What will school meals look like? How do you plan for those unknowns?

Miguel: We have no idea what the future is going to bring. What we do know is this: School food service programs are super resilient. School food service employees are super resilient. The people in charge are super resilient and able to adapt and figure things out. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve proven that over and over again.

We really need to develop a roadmap of standards. We have this opportunity now. Who needs to be at the farm to school table? I think we have the people and the resources to make those decisions. We need to invest in them.

We’ve seen it in communities around the country where you invest in school food service programs by bringing in the right leadership and providing them with the right resources, whether it be finances or infrastructure. It really has a huge impact in the community. They are seeing the benefit of that. I think we have this opportunity with COVID in that we can bring these community benefits to everybody’s attention.

Jessica: Universal meals is a great platform or starting place to think about all those different components: Investing in leadership, investing in food and justice across the board, taking a look at how school meals happen and why, and how we can improve them. I know many people are concerned about the privatization of school meal programs, meaning schools will hire external companies to implement programs because of financial losses during COVID, and this will impact the quality of food provided to children. Is this something you are worried about?

Miguel: In terms of school districts considering privatizing, you have to step back and see what’s best for your program. Ultimately I think that if you manage foodservice programs correctly and you have the right leadership in your school district, you don’t privatize. The decision to manage the school foodservice program moving forward should not just rely on one economic factor. Such as, are you in the black? Does that need to be considered? Absolutely. But it's not the only economic factor that needs to be considered.

What else is contributing to the economic livelihood of that program? How much are we spending on local farmers? How much are we contributing to the local economy?

What we don’t look at is long-term health. The fact that kids are consuming more fruits and vegetables, in many instances organic, what effect does that have on long-term health consequences? Not only for the children but for the healthcare system. And also, educating the kids along the way - what kind of decisions are they making down the road because of habits they’ve established in schools and at home? So we aren’t only focusing on what's going on in schools, but we are also reaching out to homes and telling families what we are doing and getting them engaged as well. All those things need to be addressed and privatization doesn’t take all of that into consideration.

All that to tell you how important it is that we continue to focus on hiring the right people. I used to say this for years, and I still do: If you are trying to accomplish everything I just mentioned in your program and you’re not seeing results with the people you have, maybe it's time to change. Not privatize, but change the leadership. Or, more importantly, invest in people, make sure they are trained properly and have the right resources. This is what you can get for your community as well.

“The thing is, we have school food service programs and they exist in every community. They truly can be the hub for creating nutrition and wellness environments.”

Jessica: One of the things that COVID-19 has done is shine a spotlight on schools as centers of community and places that serve communities. It truly demonstrates that the value of school meal programs is what it puts out into the community.

Miguel: Absolutely. The thing is, we have school food service programs and they exist in every community. They truly can be the hub for creating nutrition and wellness environments. I see this around the country in some localized school districts where they are reaching out and creating collaborative partnerships. They’ve invited people to the farm to school table. It’s happening across the country. The attention to our programs has really surfaced.

Jessica: Building on some of the changes we’ve discussed, what challenges are you seeing because of COVID-19? What inequities are you seeing?

Miguel: Yeah, there’s challenges from all directions. That will continue to be part of our program because of people's mindsets. And I’ll use myself as an example. Before I moved to California and was working in Texas, I really wasn’t thinking about the food system in general. My job was to feed children, provide nourishment to children, and work with distributors and manufacturers. That was it. What does a manufacturer produce and who can I get it from, and how is that going to impact the bottom line? That was my focus for the better part of 20 years until I moved out here to California and realized that the food system we work in is much broader and involves so much more than I had ever thought about. By taking that all into context I realized it's far more challenging than we think. There’s so many moving parts you have to consider. Not only the manufacturers but where did the food come from to begin with? Where was it sourced? How is it being grown? Is it organic? What impact does it have on children, environment, animals and so forth?

“I guess the way I would gauge success is when people stop talking about the food system and it’s just inherent. We eat healthy. That’s when we have success when it just becomes who we are. We don’t have to think about it.”

Jessica: Why is farm to school and our food system so important right now? What are some critical relationships and partnerships that you’ve relied on to do this work?

Miguel: When I came to California, I started creating lots of different collaborative partnerships within our community because I knew that was missing. Starting directly with the schools. Who have I not been talking to?

For example, I had only met about 5 school teachers the entire time I worked in Texas. I had relationships with administrators of course, but I had not considered the teachers in the classroom as partners. And when I came to California, I stood back and asked who are our partners right here, in this school community? Well, it’s made up of teachers, administrators, students. It was so important to make partnerships with those teachers early on. I’m proud to say I made the effort to introduce myself and meet all the teachers in the district. And it took time to make that happen. I wanted them to know that I supported their efforts in the classroom. And in turn, teachers could support Child Nutrition efforts, but we had to work together for the benefit of the students.

I started meeting with lots of student groups as well. It happened over a period of 10 years - it didn’t happen overnight. I met teachers, students, and then the families, through PTA groups. Then I worked on building collaborations outside of the school community. Where are we buying our food from? It included our farmers and ally groups that wanted to join. The collaborative groups grew and developed over the years. Because of that, we had lots of successes. We all want to be a part of a winning team.

Start within and expand outwardly. People want to be a part of the team once they see positive impacts.

I’ll share this last thing: A farmer asked me one time ‘how do you know that you’ve been successful? How do you gauge success? That everything you've put in place is working?’ He caught me off guard but I remember thinking, I guess the way I would gauge success is when people stop talking about the food system and it’s just inherent. We eat healthy. We have success when it just becomes who we are. We don’t have to think about it.