Register for the upcoming May 17 microseries session here

By Trisha Bautista Larson, NFSN Program Manager

Word cloud response from the Fall 2023 Cohort answering the question, “Who are the communities you want to represent in the Racial Equity Learning Lab?”

Recap of the journey

Between September 2023 through February 2024, a group of 13 incredible Farm to School advocates and practitioners forged connections with one another and practiced the art of co-learning and co-creating in the Racial Equity Learning Lab. The Fall 2023 Lab cohort members primarily worked in food, nutrition, and agricultural education spaces and had the opportunity to build upon each others’ knowledge across fields and geographic differences towards advancing racial equity in Farm to School. For example, cohort member Patrilie Hernandez came with the experience of working across multiple disciplines in their role: “I partner with food, nutrition, wellness, and health providers on integrating strategies to help build thriving communities.” 

Many cohort members expressed deep appreciation for the opportunity to work with individuals with a range of perspectives whose roles vary in Farm to School. For some, the Lab experience provided them with courage and a way of articulation to advocate for equity-related systems changes in their respective work. Martine Hippolyte expressed her appreciation for the Lab by sharing:

The first year of implementing the Racial Equity Learning Lab has been a learning experience not only for the cohort members, but also for us at National Farm to School Network. Through the Lab experience, we acquired and practiced new tools such as Appreciative Inquiry, Dynamic Governance, Sharing Circles for storytelling, and value-based facilitation styles. 

Appreciative Inquiry guided us into thinking about conventional problem statements in a positive way to foster sustainable action. This approach to systems thinking encouraged us to come up with solutions based on the assets and strengths that already exist within our respective work and communities. 

Through the principles of Dynamic Governance, we were able to encourage all voices to be heard in decision-making while carefully and intentionally balancing this with consent. While our Equity Consultant, Alena Paisano and I, an NFSN staff member, served as the main facilitators, cohort participants were invited throughout to co-facilitate, lead discussions, and bring topics that matter most to them. Discussions remained dynamic about the pre-work materials and served as grounding information before diving into real-time events or matters related to Farm to School or food system work. A cohort member emphasized, “having conversations with people that don’t necessarily have the same consciousness without doing harm” as a key learning from the process. The Lab followed a roadmap but still allowed for the kind of spaciousness needed to explore new ideas and encouraged thought-partnerships between cohort members to support each other with their work. 

While the Lab experience has concluded for the 2023 Fall cohort members, their learning journey still continues. We wanted to share with you highlights from what an equitable farm to school looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds like for some of the cohort members:

“I see an equitable farm to school culture as one that carefully balances the big picture work with the day to day lived experience of everyone involved - moving at a pace that doesn’t leave people and their unique experiences out…”

Michelle Howell, Farmer/Owner of Need More Acre Farms 

“In my ideal world, an equitable farm to school program would provide the same opportunities and resources to all schools or participants to meet their needs…everyone doesn’t develop at the same pace and we have to meet people where they are to help them reach the same outcome” 

Marcus Glenn, Houston Independent School District Nutrition Services - Food and Agriculture Literacy Program 

“In my role, an equitable farm to school system looks fun and futuristic. It’s inviting to future farmers, promotes innovation, and challenges youth to see food differently. It smells clean, fresh, and full of opportunity. It tastes delicious and comforting – like home. It sounds calming, peaceful, and a safe space.”

Jade Clark, Director of Agriculture at PURE Academy

The 2023 Racial Equity Learning Lab cohort's in-person meeting in New Orleans, along with NFSN staff members

What’s next? 

Participants from the Lab have each taken away unique learnings and action items from their collective experience. As a way to close the Lab, the Fall 2023 cohort members organized an “application inventory” to generate inspiration and concrete ideas for actions to keep in mind beyond their six-month participation. The cohort shared personal and work related initiatives which include:

  • Expanding on Land Acknowledgement practices; building upon verbal acknowledgments to one that activates audiences into action as well as investment and honoring of Indigenous peoples
  • Continuing to listen and prioritizing authentic relationships with community members before diving into operational work
  • Shifting mindsets to channel a more asset and strength-based approach to Farm to School programming
  • Building in “co-design” frameworks in future projects and other value-based facilitation strategies when collaborating with communities and stakeholders
  • Developing holistic positionality statements that can be integrated in webinar and other presentation introductions
  • Re-imagining ways to evaluate programs and strategies - to one that uplifts data transparency, collaboration, and ownership

In an effort to share these learnings with the broader farm to school movement and our Partners, NFSN has designed two public microseries workshops as an extension of the original Lab experience. The microseries will be a great opportunity to bridge the connections made from the first cohort as we prepare for the next group of practitioners to build community with one another this fall season. The microseries will highlight key topics from the experience and jumpstart conversations on ways to operationalize equity in the way we work in Farm to School.

The next microseries will be hosted on May 17, 2:00 - 3:30pm EST. Learn more and register here