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.