Partnerships fuel farm-to-school success

Published: 10/16/2019 8:30:45 AM

This year’s back-to-school season has come with lots of good news about the farm-to-school efforts underway in local K-12 and college dining services. Our schools are serving more local food in the cafeteria, growing food and teaching lessons in school gardens, and connecting food and farms to learning goals in the classroom. These activities make our schools more vibrant and nourishing, and their benefits reach farms, businesses, and surrounding communities.

Not surprisingly, farm-to-school efforts rest on a web of partnerships within each school — dining service staff, teachers, administrators, custodians and groundspeople — and in the larger community. Parents, students, farmers, and community groups play critical roles in overcoming the challenges inherent in making big change.

Adding hands-on, garden-based activities may engage and delight kids, but teachers need support in creating lessons that connect to their curricular goals in order to prioritize garden visits. Incorporating more healthy or local products in a school menu serves no one if kids won’t eat the food. Schools and colleges can leverage their spending on food to support the businesses that make our local food economy work — farms, distributors, and processors, for example — but their success requires enthusiastic staff and strong business relationships, in which each party is willing to try something new and untested.

At the K-12 level, schools across the region have successes to tout. Schoolchildren in Franklin County, for example, are regular visitors at the farm run by Greenfield-based non-profit Just Roots. Classes including kids of all ages and abilities come to the farm for tours, hands-on work projects, and curriculum-connected activities.

The Hawlemont School, serving Hawley, Charlemont and Heath, sees agriculture and food production as an integral part of day-to-day school life. Farmers, community members, parents, teachers and kids work together to support their “Hawlemont, Agriculture, and You,” program, which has everyone in the school doing farm chores to keep barns, greenhouses, and gardens thriving. This program garnered its second Award for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education last June and hosts an annual conference to share knowledge and experience with other schools.

Further south, Northampton and Springfield were recently awarded USDA Farm-to-School grants. Northampton’s nonprofit grant recipient, Grow Food Northampton, will coordinate activities including local sourcing, visits to farms, school gardens, and cooking and nutrition classes. This project builds on the nonprofit’s ongoing efforts to make healthy, local food available to more Northampton residents and to ensure that kids who grow up in the city know where food comes from and how it is grown.

Springfield Public Schools, working with their dining service management company, Sodexo, will use their USDA grant funds to build 5-7 new teaching gardens at schools — when completed, more than half of Springfield’s 60-plus public schools will have school gardens! They’ll also expand parental involvement in partnership with the Springfield Food Policy Council and UMass Extension Nutrition Education Program. This will be the first full school year that Springfield Public Schools will be served by the system’s new Culinary and Nutrition Center, allowing them to do more from-scratch cooking and to use more local ingredients.

Local college dining services also include farm-to-school innovators. With support from the Kendall Foundation, Smith College is spearheading a project with Westfield State University, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, and 17 farms to expand the colleges’ use of locally and regionally grown meat. By committing to use all parts of the pastured animal and scheduling processing during the slow season for local slaughterhouses, the project aims to expand local meat production, preserve pastureland, and support critical infrastructure businesses, at a price that works for both farmers and the colleges.

UMass Amherst has a long, strong track record of expanding local sourcing in their dining program. One recent project demonstrates UMass Dining’s ability to take action that benefits Massachusetts residents who may never set foot on the Amherst campus. Working with Red’s Best, a seafood distributor that aggregates product from small coastal fishing boats, and Boston’s food business incubator Commonwealth Kitchen, UMass Dining developed a product using underfished species with low consumer recognition. The result is a versatile and spicy breaded fish that pleases students while taking pressure off more heavily fished species.

It’s no surprise that well-fed kids learn better than hungry ones, and that hands-on, real-world lessons can help kids fully understand academic concepts. Grassroots organizing and a national farm-to-school movement have resulted in increased foundation and government support for these activities. Our local schools are showing us that the positive results accrue to all of us.

Margaret Christie is the special projects director at CISA in South Deerfield.


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