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How Schools and Early Care Sites Served as Hubs for Food Access During COVID-19

NFSN Staff Tuesday, May 18, 2021
By Sade Collins, NFSN Program Fellow

The COVID-19 emergency exacerbated inequities and activated new crises for the farming sector and for consumers across the food system. The pandemic led to shifting demands in the food system and prompted the government and communities to respond quickly to provide emergency support for actors across the food system. With food insecurity heightened, operators around the country demonstrated their ability to innovate and develop practices for fulfilling essential needs in communities across the country. Mitigating this crisis came with innovative approaches to supplying communities with fresh, local products through Community Supported Agriculture and emergency food operations. Community food organizations mobilized quickly to support local farmers and communities. In many communities, schools and early care sites became vital access points for local food through emergency food distribution.

As part of the Local Food Systems Response to COVID-19 project funded by USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, National Farm to School Network (NFSN) partnered with Farm to Institution New England and researchers from the University of Kentucky to develop an Innovation Brief: Pre-K and K-12 Schools as Access Points for Local Food to elevate examples from across the country of this innovation. However, we heard so many inspirational examples of schools and early care sites becoming hubs for food access, we could not fit them all into a single brief. Below, you’ll find even more innovation and inspiration from NFSN partners across the country. Thank you to all the organizations who shared their stories with us!

Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project-ASAP (Asheville, North Carolina): ASAP launched the Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program to connect local farmers with food pantries/relief sites as well as with child care providers that have continued to operate as essential businesses throughout the pandemic. ASAP raised funds for this program from both corporate foundations and individual donors. ASAP staff acted as “matchmakers,” connecting small farmers in the region and nearby feeding sites, including child care locations. ASAP awarded the feeding sites a monthly budget to be used to order local products on a weekly basis directly from their “matched” producer. Farmers are compensated directly for the products they grow and deliver to these sites. 

Project GROWS (Staunton, Virginia and Waynesboro, Virginia): Project GROWS worked closely with Staunton City Schools (SCS), Waynesboro Public Schools (WPS), after school programs, various food pantries and farmers markets to continue to provide local food to families in the Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County community throughout the COVID-19 emergency. Using connections with farmers in the community, Project GROWS was able to help facilitate sales to the schools directly through the Harvest of the Month (HOM) program. Each month  a different local farm was featured in  virtual HOM videos and Project GROWS facilitated a sale of the featured HOM product to the schools from those farms to create  HOM produce samples. According to Project GROWS, participation in the school meal program in their partner districts has actually grown amid the pandemic. With this increase in demand for food, produce sales to schools increased both from the Project GROWS own on-site farm and other local farms. The organization worked also worked with partners to create new pathways for local food to reach families during a time when access is very limited. This included participating in a fresh food box initiative through the local hospital, establishing an online farmers market for producers, creating a fresh food donation program at markets, facilitating a curbside pick up at market, accepting and doubling SNAP/P-EBT, and routinely donating food to food pantries, homeless shelters, and senior centers.

Farm Fresh Rhode Island (Rhode Island): Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Farm Fresh Rhode Island's local foods distribution platform, Market Mobile, connected farms exclusively to wholesale accounts such as restaurants, small grocers, Co-ops, food service management companies, and schools. When restaurants closed dine-in services, Market Mobile leveraged this existing infrastructure to launch direct to consumer food distribution, both to provide local food to residential communities, and to mitigate supply chain disruptions for farmers. Rhode Island worked with USDA Food Nutrition Services to obtain clearance to accept SNAP-EBT and to deliver food to SNAP recipients. Farm Fresh Rhode Island also developed a guide for farmers on how to obtain an FNS number and EBT card reader to accept SNAP sales directly.

REAP Food Group (Madison, WI): For over 10 years, REAP Food Group, in partnership with Madison Metropolitan School Districts (MMSD) Food and Nutrition, has processed local fruits and vegetables for elementary schools enrolled in the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) as part of the MMSD Farm to School Project, which focuses on increasing local food accessibility for preK-12 students. To ensure continued access to FFVP to all students, MMSD began distributing unprocessed items to FFVP schools in late September. School staff prepared and bagged local fresh fruit and vegetable snack items to be distributed for students learning at home. MMSD Food and Nutrition altered their entire service model to cater to the mostly virtual model for the district, packing over 50,000 meals weekly for a district with over 50% of 28,000 students receiving free or reduced lunch. REAP worked closely with MMSD to create a modified snack schedule that allowed for the local, seasonal component of the program to really stand out and gave REAP a chance to continue the program despite also having reduced capacity to safely receive and pack food. 

Fairfax Public Schools (Fairfax County, Virginia): Fairfax Public Schools (FPS) started serving meals to families at the start of the pandemic. USDA waivers allowed breakfast and lunch meals to be served to children throughout the summer through the Summer Food Service Food Program and continued during the school year. CACFP meals and snacks waiver has helped provide meals to families. Additionally, the district continued the Food for Education Program (FFEP), which creates an additional opportunity to offer local foods to families. Funding from the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) COVID Relief Grant allowed for the continuation of FFEP through the summer by offering supplemental fruit at four school feeding sites. FPS distributed over 4,000 pieces of fruit to children through Summer 2020. NFSN COVID relief funding also provided support for Fairfax tp provide “Grow at Home” seed growing kits with printed activity cards, education and enrichment information for distribution at 65 meal sites. FPS hopes to expand the program through another grant in the spring.

From these examples, it is clear that many early care and education sites and schools involved in farm to school and farm to ECE leveraged their existing partnerships, resources, and infrastructure to shift their priorities and address the critical needs of families amid the COVID crisis. Schools and early care sites became a critical access point for Child Nutrition Program meals as well as local food boxes, food shares, and gardening resources and education. In many communities, local food organizations and aggregators have acted as key connectors across local food systems and emergency food systems. Now is a vital time to consider what we have learned from this experience and ensure that local and regional food systems as well as schools and early care sites are well supported and sufficiently funded so they can continue to be a bridge to good food for children and families. 

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