Sustainability in Farm to School Initiatives: Q&A with Andrew Powers, Northeast Regional Farm to School Institute Evaluator

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Northeast Farm to School Institute model, developed by Vermont FEED, is a unique year-long learning opportunity for schools, districts, and early childhood teams to build robust and sustainable farm to school programs. Lacy Stephens, Senior Program Manager of the National Farm to School Network (NFSN), sat down with Andrew Powers of PEER Associates, lead evaluator for the Northeast Farm to School Institute, to discuss impacts and learnings from the farm to school institute model. Listen to their full conversation and view excerpts below. For background on the farm to school institute model, see NFSN’s recent blog, Driving Sustainable Farm to School Through the Farm to School Institute Model.

Nat'l Farm to School Network · Sustainability in Farm to School Initiatives: Q&A with Andrew Powers

Lacy: You've been involved in the Northeast Farm to School Institute for quite a while now. What are the key components that we should know about the institute?

Andrew: I couldn't stress enough from everything we've learned over all the years the importance of bringing a diverse team together. People from schools can be very siloed and not everyone has a chance to really work together. When you can take an administrator, food service director, teacher coordinator, bringing them together with their coach, and really, everyone is welcome as part of a team, it can be a parent, a community member, any sort of volunteer, but bringing those folks together and really having them understand each other's roles is so valuable and creates such a functional working dynamic. Bringing that team together and building their capacity is such a huge element. Then again and again, I heard about action planning. Farm to school is an evaluation challenge because there are so many different ways to implement it. Having that action plan, having the time to develop a plan of, “Here's where we're going to focus. Here's how we're going to do it,” brings about that clarity of purpose. It becomes that central reference point that they keep coming back to. The coaching is really important, having ongoing support, having that sounding board and that person who has the bigger perspective in the team that can say, “you know, we need an idea for this, or we need a resource for that,” or just help problem solve. Having an expert outside perspective, and that support for an extended period of time, is also really valuable.

Lacy: Can you tell us about your previous engagement and evaluation with that model over the years?

Andrew: I think over the years evaluation has helped to refine and clarify what's important in the model. A high level finding that really speaks to the institute model is the need to invest in people. It's not like here's your little one hour after school professional development. We're going to bring it together in a nice place and really take care of you and give you the space and time to get to know each other and work together. We should talk more about the equity piece and how to make it available to more people and what we're learning about hybrid virtual access. But it's fundamentally about investing in the people who are going to be the ones to do the work. We know farm school can be a heavy lift, it doesn't just happen easily. The institute model focuses on showing people that we value the work by valuing you and your involvement in it. The team’s become that burning heart of the program, being that strong team or strong committee

Lacy: Tell us what you heard in your retrospective study. What did you find? And, I know you also did a lot of work looking at previous literature around sustainability. How did those findings fit with farm to school and your evaluation here?

Andrew: When we talk about sustainability, it’s a buzzword and can be a lot of things. In this case, we are generally talking about just program staying power: How strong is the program? Is it still there? What's helping it last? When it distilled to the highest level, we heard three big factors that really were driving sustainability: capacity, culture, and commitment.

Capacity is about the people power that runs farm to school. We know that it takes a lot of players to make this happen, especially talking about the institute model where you want to be integrated across the cafeteria, the classroom, and in the community. Building that people power and having that sustained people power is so important. Where the institute really thrives is in the leadership and coordination capacity for farm to school – building strong teams, giving them tools, helping them build relationships and then giving them tools to work together in action planning. That management level of capacity is so valuable when you're trying to do something that is not necessarily super simple. Under capacity as well, it takes money, it takes equipment to make some of these things happen. That is a piece of capacity that the institute does not provide, but people did a lot of planning at the institute for finding support and applying for grants.

Culture is an important piece, and much has been written about school culture. The idea of school culture embodies so many things: the values of a school, the traditions, what they define themselves as, what's deemed as important. Getting farm to school into the culture is a really important piece of sustainability. At the institute, teams get a chance to look and see, “where does this fit into what we already believe?” And there's so many ways that farm to school aligns with what people think is important. Of course, you have a wellness policy, or a focus on health and wellness and farm to school fits right into that. Other schools, you can fit it into academics. Part of the institute is seeing how we pull together these disparate threads and make them into a program. You'll find a lot of schools with gardens that aren't really integrated. You'll find a lot of schools with a bit of local procurement going on, but no one really knows about it, or it's not something that's connected to the curriculum, or the community is not aware of it. Another piece of culture is a school’s traditions and rituals. There’ll be a community dinner a school has always done, but then it becomes a harvest dinner, a farm to school dinner where it becomes something that people look forward to in the whole community.

Commitment is all about relationships. Farm to school takes a lot of relationships and commitment. What you see with the institute is a way to build those really strong connections to each other. What it takes is people who really care. You need champions, but you can't rely on those people forever. You have to figure they're going to move on, they're going to need to do something else. It’s about figuring out how to keep recruiting those folks, how to keep bringing people on board, getting people excited.

Listen to the full interview here.

This blog was originally posted on July 29, 2021.

New Edition! Policy Handbook for Farm to School Advocates

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Farm to school legislation is a key strategy for making local food procurement, school gardens, and food education a reality for millions of children, farmers, and communities across the country. We’re excited to share a new resource to help partners and advocates in these efforts: the State Farm to School Policy Handbook: 2002-2020.

Co-authored by the National Farm to School Network and the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, the State Farm to School Policy Handbook summarizes and analyzes every proposed farm to school bill and resolution introduced between January 1, 2002, and December 31, 2020, from the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. It enables users to search bills by both jurisdiction and topic, and includes analysis of trends, case studies, advocacy resources and more.

What’s new in this edition?
The State Farm to School Policy Handbook: 2002-2020 builds on a survey that was originally released in 2011, and updated in 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2019. The last update of the Handbook focused on bills that directly advanced the core elements of farm to school – local procurement, school gardens, and food and agriculture education. In this edition, we broadened our scope to also include:

Bills that Support Universal School Meals: One clear takeaway for school nutrition professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the need for universal meals, which allow them to focus more on nourishing kids than on filling out paperwork by eliminating means testing and making all school meals free for all students. This edition of the Handbook highlights bills that support universal meal expansion and implementation through state policies.

Bills that Support BIPOC Producers: Farm to school exists within the broader agricultural economy. Policies addressing the historical and ongoing inequities between Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) farmers and their white counterparts are ultimately necessary for BIPOC producers to experience a level playing field on which to participate in farm to school. This edition of the Handbook highlights bills that support small farmers and producers of color in aims of spurring more of this type of policy. It also includes a comprehensive case study on key strategies to support Native food and Tribal sovereignty through farm to school policy.

Farm to school policy responses to COVID-19: The public health and economic emergency caused by COVID-19 illuminated valuable lessons about the resilience of our food system and farm to school and ECE work. It also showed opportunities for continued advocacy to ensure communities are better supported in future emergency situations. This edition of the Handbook includes a case study highlighting farm to school, child nutrition, and food system policy challenges experienced during the pandemic, as well as innovations and strategies for future resilience.

What are the other highlights?
Between January 1, 2002 and December 31, 2020:

  • 46 states, DC, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have introduced 546 bills and resolutions supporting farm to school activities.
  • 43 states, DC, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed farm to school policies.
  • Between 2019-2020, 26 states proposed 91 farm to school bills and resolutions. Of those, 30 passed.
  • The most common bill type has been one that provides funding for farm to school. These bills include annual appropriations, permanent funds, and other revenue streams.

How can advocates use the Handbook?
The time is ripe to leverage relationships and advocate to expand farm to school through state legislation, and the State Farm to School Policy Handbook is a valuable tool you can use to approach policy in ways that make sense for your state. Whether your state is still working to pass its first farm to school legislation or ready to expand, you can use this Handbook to gain knowledge of the wide variety of farm to school policy options that exist and find inspiration and models that can be adapted to meet your states needs. Be sure to check out the Promising Practices section (starting on page 21) and the Advocacy Strategies (starting on page 23) for ideas to seed, grow, and sustain farm to school in your state. The Bill Summaries (starting on page 41) can be helpful comparing your state’s farm to school laws, policies and programs to those of other states.

State-level farm to school policy work is driving a broader expansion of farm to school across the country. Simply put, strong laws facilitate strong programs. But more work is still needed to ensure equitable access to the opportunities and benefits of these programs. The goal of every state and territory should be to pass comprehensive legislation that supports farm to school activities to advance racial equity and benefit those most impacted in their communities. We hope the Handbook provides a roadmap for advocates and policymakers to dig deeper into developing the laws needed to facilitate strong, equity-centered farm to school programs. Download the resource here to start exploring.

Have questions about this new resource or need a thought partner on how to connect with your state lawmakers? Don’t hesitate to contact our Policy team for support! We look forward to hearing how your advocacy efforts continue to grow the farm to school movement, state by state.

The State Farm to School Handbook: 2002-2020 is co-written by National Farm to School Network and the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School (CAFS). This project is funded by the National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This blog was originally posted on July 27, 2021.

New Resource! Lessons from COVID-19: Innovations and Strategies for Farm to ECE Implementation in States and Communities

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

By National Farm to School Network and The Policy Equity Group, LLC

The Policy Equity Group and the National Farm to School Network, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, are pleased to jointly release Lessons from the COVID-19 Experience: Innovations and Strategies for Farm to Early Care and Education Implementation in States and Communities. This brief captures how farm to early care and education (ECE) efforts at the state and community levels were initially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Informed by the experiences of food and early childhood partner organizations in five states – Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – the brief documents the systemic impacts of COVID-19 and the federal response from a farm to ECE perspective; describes how farm to ECE partner organizations adapted to the new context during the initial months of the pandemic; and provides recommendations for how states and communities can sustain the successful strategies implemented during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic had profound impacts across food and ECE systems that exacerbated inequities and racial injustices in food, health, and education. This system shock prompted and accelerated emerging education and food access trends, including increased demand for virtual learning and outdoor learning opportunities, like gardening for children and families. The shift to virtual platforms was echoed in demands for online training and professional development for ECE providers and in the food system, where everyone from agricultural producers to consumers moved to online marketplaces. Policy responses included increased flexibility in policy and regulation and increased investments in ECE and food systems through federal stimulus.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis and these emerging themes, farm to ECE stakeholders turned to innovative approaches to navigate challenges and meet the needs of children and families. Existing partnerships across food and ECE systems became vital, and many farm to ECE stakeholders deepened their engagement with emergency food organizations. These partnerships paved the way for farm to ECE initiatives, like family Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, that supported immediate family needs and maintained a market for local producers. Partner organizations met the needs of families, providers, and producers by facilitating online learning, professional development, and facilitating the transition to online food sales and purchase. Farm to ECE stakeholders creatively layered funding coming from multiple sources to support these ongoing efforts.

As many states and ECE sites continue to stabilize and recover, sustaining these innovations could be beneficial in the short and long term. Maintaining relationships across food, early care, and emergency food assistance stakeholders builds community resilience and can increase access to local foods for all families. Continued opportunities for virtual training and building infrastructure for online marketplaces opens the accessibility of education and local foods to more ECE providers and families. Importantly, the flexibility offered in child nutrition programs should be extended or built into a more permanent policy approach to continue increased access to meals and reduced paperwork burden for providers. The figure below provides a snapshot of lessons captured in the brief. These lessons are vital to informing advocacy in child nutrition policy and upcoming stimulus opportunities. For opportunities to put this information into action, learn more about NFSN policy priorities for Child Nutrition Reauthorization here and read about opportunities to leverage stimulus funding, here: Creative Opportunities for Strengthening Farm to ECE through Emerging Federal Funding Streams.

Read the full brief to learn more about these themes of innovation that emerged during COVID-19 and the policy and practice recommendations we can garner from the experience to build more equitable and more resilient ECE and food systems into the future.

This blog was originally posted on July 23, 2021.

Driving Sustainable Farm to School Through the Farm to School Institute Model

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Photo Credit: Vermont FEED

The Northeast Farm to School Institute model, developed by Vermont FEED, is a unique year-long learning opportunity for schools, districts, and early childhood teams to build robust and sustainable farm to school programs. In June 2021, Vermont FEED Project Director, Betsy Rosenbluth, project evaluator Andrew Powers of PEER Associates, Simca Horowitz of Massachusetts Farm to School, LeBroderick Woods of Mississippi Farm to School, and Sarah Smith of the Nebraska Department of Education joined the National Farm to School Network for a special webinar sharing the Institute model and innovative adaptations of the model happening across the country. The following information summarizes content shared on the June webinar, but you can view the full webinar here.

The Northeast Farm to School Institute
The Farm to School Institute uses a three C’s model of change, connecting the classroom, cafeteria, and community. They aim to connect these three essential areas through integrating food education, improving nutrition and food access, and building relationships between students, families, and schools. A key component of the program is action planning, during which schools meet at a summer intensive with their collaborative teams to develop an action plan ready to implement at the start of the new school year. The teams are paired with a coach - an experienced practitioner at the Institute that supports them throughout the year as they plan and implement their action plan. By bringing schools into a shared space for learning, the Institute facilitates peer learning and a sense of shared purpose among participants, with dedicated time to explore the innovations and feedback of the teams’ peers. The Institute builds cross collaborative school teams as well, with teams made of administrators, teachers, school nutrition staff, and other key players needed to create a robust and sustainable program. These teams also receive professional development and role-specific communities to help build capacity.

A recent retrospective evaluation conducted with members of ten Institute alumni teams found that their participation influenced sustainability of the farm to school programs developed and accelerated through the Institute. The study found that attending the summer intensive fostered time to connect and build strong inter-team relationships, making it easier to strategize, plan, and coordinate the program later on. They also found the action plan to be integral to the success of the program and the coach’s guidance and coordination very beneficial. Having paid coordination after the year of coaching also greatly helped sustainability. Another way the Institute fostered success was through its ability to create school commitment through teacher buy-in, building champions, and gaining administrative support, whose support is an essential piece to program sustainability. Finally, by participating in the Institute, schools made farm to school a priority and learned the value of the program. In order to build a sustainable program, farm to school must align with school priorities and goals, it has to be visible, and it has to be prioritized. The Institute helped teams achieve these requirements, effectively embedding farm to school into the school culture.

The Farm to School Institute Community of Practice
The Institute has been so impactful since its start in 2010 that, after five years of supporting Vermont schools with their integrated model of change, Vermont FEED opened the Institute to schools throughout the seven Northeast states, with the goal of supporting states as they replicate and adapt the model. States and communities across the nation have been adapting their model to support sustainable development of farm to school in their own communities. This year there are seven Farm to School Institute adaptations across the country with 2-3 more planned for 2022, a community of practice representing 18 states, and planning tools and guides available on the Vermont FEED website. Three of these states share their approaches to replicating the Institute and customizing the approach for their state.

Massachusetts: Massachusetts Farm to School, an organization that supports local food sourcing and education across the state, participated in the Northeast Farm to School Institute and has been providing schools with their own adaptation of the model since 2017. According to Simca Horowitz, Massachusetts’ Farm to School Co-director, having the opportunity to participate was a learning experience that shifted their programming to a more integrated, holistic approach that includes all three elements of the model, whereas previously they focused primarily on the cafeteria component. They started by sending 1-2 school districts per year to the Northeast Institute. Looking to create a more accessible program, they launched their first Massachusetts Farm to School Institute in 2017 as a pilot with three school districts, building over time to eight teams per year. Massachusetts kept most of the same components as the original model as they found the time tested tools catered to the northeast a substantial foundation to build from. Simca explained the lessons they’ve learned over the years on how to get schools excited about joining.“ We realized how important it was to have a time and place for people to come together in an environment different from their school really was.” According to Simca, the atmosphere at the Summer intensive plays a critical role in drawing schools to the Institute and creating a promising start for their farm to school programs.

By hosting summer intensives at educational farms, they are able to create a space that’s inspiring, connects attendees to the purpose of the work, and allows for experiential learning opportunities. The atmosphere also creates the feeling of a retreat more than a professional development workshop, helping the Institute stand out. Massachusetts has also been able to make their Institute more attractive to schools with financial support for implementation. Thanks to a private funding source, if a district participates in the Institute, they are eligible for funding that is otherwise provided competitively. The Institute also opens doors for funding opportunities, in part because of the action planning and strong whole school teams. Many schools go on to apply for and receive USDA farm to school grants. Simca believes the Institute helps support participant’s applications by helping them create clear goals and articulated plans.

Other key ways that Massachusetts has adapted the Institute to their own needs includes their coaches-in-training program. In an effort to build diverse leadership in the Farm to School movement, they provide an opportunity for those with less experience in farm to school to observe the Institute for one year, and then move into a paid coaching role the second year. They also accept both schools and districts, with districts needing to identify 1-2 schools that are the focus of their activities. Massachusetts requires districts to encourage school administrative participation, as farm to school involves many decisions which benefits from having individual school administrators present.

Mississippi: The Mississippi Farm to School Network has also created an Institute adapted from Vermont FEED’s model. Since their start in 2019, they’ve successfully built interest from potential participants by inspiring schools with the stories of teams that have graduated the program. They also build interest and decrease barriers for their participants by emphasising small steps towards big goals and showing schools how farm to school applies to their mission. Their approach to the Institute during COVID has reflected their focus. Instead of inviting new schools, they made the 2020 Farm to School Institute a celebration of teams that had graduated from the Institute, sharing their wins over the years and highlighting the small steps they made along the way, motivating both current and potential farm to school program teams.

LeBroderick Woods, Mississippi Farm to School Network’s Program Coordinator, emphasized the importance of taking into account turnover by making sure to teach specific participants how to implement farm to school for their specific position and not for the specific person. According to LeBroderick, team collaboration is also key to building sustainable programs. “Getting the whole team involved and not working in silos is so beneficial,” he explained. Mississippi has also embedded equity into their Institute, as Massachusetts and Vermont have, by considering demographics when selecting schools and including early care programs in the Institute to reach an impactful and often under prioritized setting. Mississippi also offers stipends to each team with few restrictions as well as technical assistance. When offering technical assistance, LeBroderick believes in always having a face to the Institute to keep teams invested, making sure to be available and present at all times.

Nebraska: Recognizing a need to further capacity and better organize farm to school work in Nebraska, the Nebraska Extension program decided to start their own Farm to School Institute. Using USDA Farm to School grant funding, they spent one year building their community of practice and leveraged the connections and conversations built in that space to promote the 2021 Institute. They also promoted and built interest in the Institute by requiring schools to include an extension educator on their team. “By having an extension educator on the team, schools heard about it from more than one source, they were hearing it from their own local level as well.” Explained Sarah Smith, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable and Local Foods Consultant for the Nebraska Department of Education. They are also incentivizing the Institute by offering mini-grants for the eight schools participating to put towards projects and travel reimbursement. On top of the week-long intensive, they are also offering technical assistance through the coaches supporting each team. As Sarah explained, Nebraska didn’t originally intend to have coaches, but recognized the value, both for the teams, and for the opportunity to train practitioners and build more awareness around farm to school.


This blog was originally posted on July 22, 2021.