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.