Written by CoBank

This National Farm to School Month, CoBank celebrates the frontline food industry workers—from farm fields to school cafeterias—and the tremendous hard work, collaboration and innovation that has been especially prominent throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to increase and sustain access to healthy foods in schools.

CoBank is proud to partner with the National Farm to School Network and its mission of growing farm to school to support farmers and vibrant rural communities. While the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a bright light on the inequities in our food system, CoBank remains committed to helping communities access the tools to address their unique needs for building and sustaining a healthy and prosperous community. 

In 2021, CoBank—in partnership with Farm Credit Services of America—was pleased to provide a grant to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to reach young people in the Lakota Nation’s efforts to build a stronger local food system. Currently, life expectancy on the reservation is 20 years lower than the national average and the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates unemployment rates at greater than 80 percent. 

Leaders from the South Dakota State University Extension and Lakota Nation identified that building a local food system and investing in micro-farming opportunities could help improve quality of life on the reservation. The project began by investing in community gardens to address nutritional needs and soon began small-scale farming to unlock economic opportunities. While the pandemic delayed the program’s extension to youth, the tribe would not be deterred. 

The youth program has grown to a team of seven—six of whom are Lakota natives—and created part-time jobs for young people who are building hoop houses and raised garden beds, featuring disability ramps to ensure accessibility for all Tribal members. 

Team members Jason Schoch, Ted Pourier and Patricia Hammond are creating accessible garden beds for disabled Army veteran Melanie Janis.

The program recently took its next step by introducing a farm to school program at Little Wound School, which serves 900 K-12 Lakota students. Together with Glorianna Under-Baggage, administrator of the school’s extension program, the team is establishing a pilot program with 18 students. A new hoop house is nearing completion and students will plant and maintain the garden. Eventually, additional gardens will feature traditional and medicinal plants.

Chris and Bryce Valandra and Elizabeth Charging Crow are building raised garden beds to support the new farm to school program at Little Wound School.

CoBank is excited to see the ways the Pine Ridge community has invested in agriculture. This investment will increase access to healthy foods, create jobs and economic opportunities and teach the next generation of farmers, while still enabling the Tribal youth to connect with the land and tradition.  

As communities learn from the hardships of the pandemic and innovate for a more resilient future, a strong farm to school ecosystem can be an important tool for building economic strength. That’s why, in 2017, CoBank was one of the sponsors to the National Farm to School Network’s report, “Economic Impacts of Farm to School: Case studies and assessment tools.” Through surveys and case studies, this report evaluated the economic impacts of farm to school and the benefits of local procurement, including returning more dollars to the local economy.

CoBank looks forward to continuing these efforts of research and demonstration programs to increase access to local, healthy foods in schools, create new market opportunities for producers, and inform community and elected leaders on the economic and social benefits of a thriving local foods system for generations to come. 

National Farm to School Network’s Interim Co-Executive Director Jessica Gudmundson says, “Investing in community-driven solutions that value and benefit all members of a community is an essential component of building racially just food systems. We are grateful for CoBank's continued support of NFSN, which helps us elevate stories like Pine Ridge community and support farm to school programs across the county.”

CoBank is a cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America. The bank provides loans, leases, export financing and other financial services to agribusinesses and rural power, water and communications providers in all 50 states. The bank also provides wholesale loans and other financial services to affiliated Farm Credit associations serving more than 76,000 farmers, ranchers and other rural borrowers in 23 states around the country. CoBank is a member of the Farm Credit System, a nationwide network of banks and retail lending associations chartered to support the borrowing needs of U.S. agriculture, rural infrastructure and rural communities.  Headquartered outside Denver, Colorado, CoBank serves customers from regional banking centers across the U.S.

For more information about CoBank, visit the bank's web site at www.cobank.com

Photo Credits: Marc Piscotty