A “Try New Things” Attitude Pays Off in Georgia

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Molly Schintler, Communication Intern

Donna Martin with students at Burke County Public Schools.

During the 2013-2014 school year, a secretary at Burke County Public Schools in Georgia had a farmer son with too many watermelons. She approached Donna Martin, School Nutrition Program Director, and asked if the school ever served local food. Donna has a ‘try new things’ attitude, so she served the watermelon and then dabbled in procuring a few other local items from farmers that she already knew. It did not take Donna long to recognize the positive impact that local food purchasing had on the students, community and farmers.  “I don’t understand how anybody can say ‘no’ to doing this (farm to school),“ Donna commented.  

Donna recognizes how farm to school is a win for everyone in the community, but she is realistic about the challenges. She says there is a whole list of barriers she’s come across; however, her ‘try new things’ attitude – that same attitude that allowed her to say “yes” to local watermelon – seems quick to overshadow the entire list. Donna and her team point out that the challenges are manageable if you are open to constantly learning, adjusting and assessing not only your own needs, but also considering farmers’ needs. Donna explained it as, “We can tell a story about practically every single one of our farmers and how we developed a relationship with them…once we develop relationships and they trust us, they are willing to go out on a limb.” Fisheads Aquaponics and Freeman’s Mill are two of the farmers that have gone out on a limb with Donna and her team in the name of bringing local food to the Burke County schools, and the effort has paid off.

Fisheads Aquaponics: Located 17 miles from the Burke County Public Schools, Fisheads is an aquaponics operation focused on growing greenhouse lettuces since 2013. Lisa Dojan’s family has been conventionally farming in the county for four generations, so when Lisa and her husband decided they wanted to start a business, the aquaponics venture allowed them to keep their family roots in agriculture while trying something a little bit different and new. Before the operation was completely up and running, Burke County started a relationship with Lisa by coming to tour the greenhouse. Now, Burke County Schools has a standing order for Fisheads lettuce, and Lisa and her farm team supply lettuces to several school districts.

Freeman’s Mill: In telling his story, Stacey Freeman says that farming and milling are in his blood. Heading up Freeman’s Mill as a fifth generation miller in Statesboro, Ga., Stacey’s operation grinds corn and wheat into grits and flour. Stacey works with a number of school districts. In fact, he sells his products to over twelve schools, including five thousand pounds of wheat and grits annually to the Burke County Schools. As his farm to school sales have grown over the past six years, he has taken note that he is filling more and more 25 pound bags of grits and whole-wheat flour for bulk sales, as compared to the 2 pound bags for farmers market.

The increase in sales to schools has meant that Stacey was able to recently expand the mill and purchase new machinery. Fisheads has experienced similar growth. In order to keep up with the demand for their lettuces, the farm is doubling their production with the addition of a second greenhouse, and because the farm is expanding, Lisa hopes to hire their farm intern as a full time manager.

Freeman’s Mill and Fisheads Aquaponics are just two of thousands of examples of farmers and producers across all 50 states, D.C., and U.S. Territories who have experienced significant financial opportunity when they are willing to “try new things” with local, institutional markets. Donna Martin and her team are a shinning example of the many food service workers throughout the country who have help their students win everyday by providing access to real food so they can grow up healthy. Stacey may have put it best when he simply stated, “For this to work, we all have to come together.” So let Donna and her team, Lisa and Stacey inspire you to try something new and make a connection with a local producer in your community!

Photo Credit: All photos were provided by the Harvest Bright: Burke County Farm to School Program

2017 Innovation Awards Celebrate Beginning Farmers and Farmer Veterans

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Farmer Dylan Strike with students at Strike Farms. (Photo Credit: Gallatin Valley Farm to School)

Farmers play a crucial role in the success of farm to school, from growing local food served in meals and snacks to hosting field trips to show kids where their food comes from. However, farmers are often underrepresented in the farm to school movement. While schools across the country are eager to purchase from local farms, access and connections with farmers remains one of the biggest barriers to implementing farm to school activities.

In 2015, we launched our Innovation Fund to support new and emerging initiatives with the potential to make significant contributions to our mission of increasing access to local food and nutrition education to improve children’s health, strengthen family farms and cultivate vibrant communities. Recognizing the need to continue supporting farmers’ presence in the farm to school movement, this year's awards are focused on exceptional examples of producers whose success in connecting with schools can provide a model for other farmers looking to do the same.

With funding support from Farm Credit, the 2017 Innovation Fund Awards celebrate beginning farmers (in their first 10 years of farming) and farmer veterans. This year’s awards have been given to two farmers in recognition of their exemplary efforts in selling local produce to schools and engaging kids in learning where their food comes from. The farmers have each received $3,500 awards in celebration of their work, and they will be sharing their stories, experiences and lessons learned with our members so that others may learn from their success. This year’s awardees are:

Dylan Strike, Strike Farms
Bozeman, Montana
Dylan Strike founded Strike Farms just outside of Bozeman, Montana in the fall of 2013. Starting with four acres in its first growing season, Strike Farms has rapidly scaled up and today grows over 100 varieties of organic vegetables, herbs and flowers on 20 acres with the support of 21 employees. With a goal of normalizing local food access and providing high-quality, sustainable food for the local community, Strike Farms products can be found in Bozeman-area grocery stores, farmers markets, CSA shares, restaurants and schools – for whom Strike Farms has supplied numerous crops for the Montana Harvest of the Month program. In addition to growing healthy food for school lunch trays, Dylan and his team have welcomed hundreds of local students for farm tours and farm to school summer camps, where kids learn how food makes it from farm to fork and the benefits of local food systems.

Jon Turner, Wild Roots Farm Vermont
Bristol, Vermont
Jon and Cathy Turner founded Wild Roots Farm Vermont in Bristol, Vermont in 2015. Wild Roots Farm Vermont is a community-based farming project focused on regenerative agricultural practices to develop resilient food systems and healthy soil. Having served three tours with the Marines, one of Jon’s hopes for the farm is to create an educational landscape where veterans can learn about growing food while also helping themselves reintegrate after coming home from war. The farm has offered workshops, tours and internship opportunities to hundreds of community members, students, school children and the veteran population with an aim of empowering the next generation of farmers to view the landscape from a whole systems perspective. In addition to providing extensive educational opportunities, Wild Roots Farm Vermont grows and sells organics vegetables, berries, mushrooms and pastured poultry for eggs and meat with the Vermont Proud, Homegrown by Heroes label. Jon is the founder and former president of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Vermont and currently sits on boards for NOFA-VT (Northeastern Organic Farmers Association of Vermont) and the Addison County Farm Bureau.  

Farmer Jon Turner with students at Wild Roots Farm Vermont. (Photo Credit: Wild Roots Farm Vermont)

Learn more about the Innovation Fund Awards and awardees from 2016 and 2015 here. Stay tuned to hear more from Dylan and Jon about their farm to school stories and success!

Farm to ECE On The Menu At National Indian Head Start Director’s Association Conference

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Abby Harper, Farm to School Specialist, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems

Farm to early care and education was on the menu at this year’s National Indian Head Start Director’s Association Annual Conference in Denver, Colo. in early June. The annual conference brings together leaders from all levels of management and leadership in American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN) Head Start programs, and this year over 40 attendees participated in a session to learn more about farm to early care and education (ECE). The session covered an overview of farm to ECE, presented strategies and resources to support implementing different components of farm to ECE, and allowed ample opportunity for attendees to discuss interest, challenges and opportunities in their programs.

The theme of this year’s conference, Preserving Indigenous Learning, opened up space to discuss how local foods can be a tool for celebrating cultural traditions of the populations served by AIAN Head Start programs. While some may think of local foods primarily related to fruits or vegetables, participants in this session highlighted local foods like salmon, bison and chili peppers as items of highest interest in incorporating into early childhood programs. During discussion, many attendees expressed interest in using local foods to teach children about food traditions and agricultural history of the populations they serve, and creating space for family engagement around gardening and food preparation. One attendee saw an opportunity in highlighting local, traditional foods as a tool for celebrating culture and instilling a sense of pride in their young children. Building off of that idea, another attendee noted the opportunity to use local foods as a way to teach children and families – many of whom have lost a connection to tribal foods – the nutritional value and preparation methods for traditional foods.

Attendees of the session expressed general interest in purchasing and utilizing local foods in early childhood meal programs, but noted several challenges specific to their communities and to bringing tribal foods and traditions into cafeterias, classrooms and gardens. In addition to challenges related to budget, geographic location presents a unique barrier for AIAN Head Start programs, as many reservations lack access to high quality agricultural land and locations to purchase reasonably priced local foods. Additionally, some foods that are of interest to tribal communities, such as wild game, foraged foods or bison raised on agricultural land, may not qualify for reimbursement under the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

Colusa Indian Child Care Center has been incorporating local foods into its early childhood programs since 2005, as a response to parents and community members noting rising health issues due to poor diets in their communities. Director Kim Nall saw local foods as a tool for increasing access to healthier lifestyles and as part of their responsibility in caring for children. “The kids are with us 8 or 9 hours a day. This is something that we need to be invested in and it’s something that we need to take seriously.” Since then, Colusa Indian Child Care Center has taken big strides to make local foods a part of its normal operations. Program staff started by establishing several on-site gardens , which grow produce for meals and snacks. They also began purchasing a variety of foods from local farms, including developing a long-term relationship with a stone fruit grower and purchasing nuts, honey and rice from nearby tribal farmers. Early on, they encountered challenges meeting minimum orders for some area farmers, so they partnered with local schools to coordinate deliveries on the same day farmers were delivering to larger school districts. Since the beginning, they’ve involved parents in every aspect of their farm to ECE activities. Parents and families test taste new recipes, help with food preparation and attend open houses that feature local farmers and vendors.

At Colusa Indian Child Care Center, the efforts are paying off. Children have become accustomed to local, seasonal foods, and these healthy habits are now ingrained in how the children approach what they eat. The staff have also seen changes in parents, who are now more open to new menus and are taking a leading role in encouraging their children to eat healthy, local foods.  The on-site farm stand has also increased in popularity among families. The center credits a lot of its success with being active in the local food scene. By participating on local food policy councils and learning what school districts in the area are doing, Colusa Indian Child Care Center has become part of the local food conversation and gained access to important resources to support its programming.

There are many resources to support early childhood programs serving AIAN populations. The National Farm to School Network has funded five farm to school programs in tribal communities that AIAN Head Start programs can learn from.  The USDA has provided guidance on utilizing traditional foods in child nutrition programs, bringing tribal foods and traditions into cafeterias, classrooms, and gardens, and gardens in tribal communities. Additionally, technical assistance providers looking to connect with AIAN programs can work with AIAN grantee organizations. These resources and the enthusiastic discussion at the National Indian Head Start Director’s Association’s June conference indicate a growing number of AIAN early childhood and head start programs that use local and traditional foods to improve nutrition and celebrate culture.

Photo credits: (Top) National Farm to School Network; (Bottom) Colusa Indian Child Care Center