Healthy Acadia’s Hancock County Farm to School (HCFTS) project connects farms and schools in Maine’s Hancock County, building mutually beneficial purchasing relationships that open new markets for farmers while improving child nutrition by offering fresh, locally grown produce in school meals and snacks. HCFTS also builds connections with school curricula to help students understand the relationships between health, local farms, and school meals.
As of fall 2007, a total of five Hancock County schools and one Head Start center will be regularly purchasing local foods from a total of eight area farms. These schools serve approximately 820 students, about 12% of students in Hancock County. In addition HCFTS developed, published, and distributed the new Hancock County Farm to School Directory, which includes information about starting farm to school purchasing and lists approximately 30 area farms, seafood companies and distributors that have expressed strong interest in selling their products to Hancock County schools. University of Maine Cooperative Extension, a partner in this project, has distributed the Farm to School Directory to each county extension office in Maine.
- Identify three to four pilot schools and farmers in the region who would be interested in working together to address health and nutrition needs of students through increased offerings of locally grown produce served in school meals and snacks.
Assess the amount of money spent by schools on local farm produce, or local farm produce as a percentage of overall food budget
Provide farm-fresh food choices in school meals and snacks to 1000 or more of the 7050 students in Hancock County.
Note changes in policy or practice in schools and on farms related to increasing locally produced food for school programs
Raise community awareness and capture community perceptions about the value of farm to school in our region
Prior to SARE funding in October 2005, Healthy Acadia convened farmers, school food service staff, parents, school administrators, community organizers, and other stakeholders to discuss barriers and opportunities for developing Farm to School partnerships. Participants identified a broad range of issues including price and budgetary limitations, local food availability, seasonality, and school food regulations. Participants also identified a host of steps that could be taken to make such partnerships more viable. These included convening meetings between farmers and schools, creating a contact list for farms and schools to contact each other, identify and share model programs, and assure overall coordination.
The Sustainable Community Grant provided a perfect opportunity to address the needs identified by the community stakeholders at the October 2005 meeting and help build local farm to school success stories.
Based on outcomes from the Hancock County Farm to School Workshop in 2005, the HCFTS project was designed to use a consultative approach to help establish farm to school purchasing relationships. The HCFTS planning team has met regularly throughout the project to strategize, guide the project, and identify opportunities for additional collaboration. Planning team members include staff of Healthy Acadia, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and School Union 98’s Coordinated School Health Program.
We started by approaching individual farms and schools for one-on-one meetings to assess their level of interest, capacity, and readiness to start a farm to school purchasing relationship. In schools, this entailed gauging interest and support from at minimum the Food Service Director/Cook and a key administrator, usually the principal. We also discussed numerous issues including current produce use, kitchen budgetary constraints, infrastructure for processing and handling fresh produce, food storage capacity, curriculum support around nutrition and agriculture, volume of produce needed, and more including some of the details to think about when working with local farms. Our preliminary conversations with farms included gathering information about delivery capacity, minimum wholesale order size, fall products available, ordering and billing practices, and some of the issues that schools deal with when starting out with local produce.
Healthy Acadia’s Farm to School Coordinator then helped connect schools with local farms, usually serving in a brokering capacity as needed for the initial purchasing agreement. This agreement usually included details such as prices, delivery schedules, volume, packaging standards, and other details that must meet farm and school needs.
Based on these conversations with local farms and schools as well as consultation with organizers of successful farm to school programs in other parts of the country we made three initial recommendations for farms and schools as partnerships began:
1. Start small by purchasing one or two items locally, to get a feel for how it works and get a sense of how any increased costs or processing might affect them
2. Find collaborators, volunteers, and advocates both in the school and in the community
3. Publicize their work within the school and throughout the community
Once purchasing begins, the Farm to School Coordinator continues consulting with both farmer and school, checking in about how things are going and troubleshooting as needed. Ongoing purchasing arrangements are made and maintained by the farm and the school, as they build their relationship and eliminate the need for a third party “broker”.
Beginning in the first year of the project, Healthy Acadia began systematically identifying and contacting all farmers selling wholesale local produce in Hancock County, with the aim of developing a Hancock County Farm to School Directory for schools and institutions to use. Farms were identified through the Maine Department of Agriculture, local restaurants, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Blue Hill Food Co-op’s produce department, and by word of mouth. More than 50 businesses were contacted, including several local seafood companies and food distributors featuring Maine products. The Hancock County Farm to School Directory, published in spring of 2006, includes a listing of 29 of these farms and food businesses.
Farms – New Markets and Community Connections
As of fall 2007, 25 area farms have expressed strong interest in participating in the Hancock County Farm to School project by selling produce to a local school. Eight farms are projected to be selling their products to local schools as of fall ‘07, an increase from zero area farms selling to schools prior to SARE funding for the HCFTS project. These farms add schools to their current delivery routes. Some farms plan their farm to school crops in the spring, planting extra carrots, cucumbers, or greens specifically for their school customers. Others will offer schools the same products that they offer their other wholesale customers. Several farms have offered to host school field trips.
Beech Hill Farm and Clayfield Farm, the primary farm to school farms in Year One of HCFTS, were asked for their feedback about farm to school. Both cited that they participate in farm to school because they: 1) feel good about making a positive impact in their community by providing healthy foods to school children, and 2) have found farm to school beneficial for their businesses. Both farms found that school customers were interested in buying surplus crops at the end of the season, when the farms’ other markets couldn’t absorb them. Beech Hill Farm is also seeing some parents of MDES students visiting their farm stand this year. “My daughter eats your vegetables in school and just loves them,” reported one mother, while buying vegetables at the farm stand this summer.
School Food Service – Changing Practices and Perceptions
In addition to providing additional revenue for farms, farm to school has led to changes in menu and in practices at school. Linda Mailhot, the cook and food service director at Mount Desert Elementary School (MDES), has begun partnering with teachers on food-related education and is currently seeking funding to start a school garden that will engage students in food production. Surry Elementary School is also starting a school garden this year, led by a team of parents, teachers, and administration.
Students have become actively involved in working in the MDES kitchen during the 2006-2007 school year. First a group of fourth graders went on a field trip to Beech Hill Farm, harvesting vegetables, bringing them back to school on the school bus, and then preparing the “Class of 2010 Vegetable Soup.” After this event, several eighth grade boys decided to begin volunteering in the kitchen for more than an hour each day, doing prep work, clean-up, and academic projects on food issues. At the end of the 2006-2007, the MDES eighth grade class invited school cook Linda Mailhot to speak at their graduation ceremony, a first for her after numerous years working in the school, and perhaps part of a trend of shifting perceptions about the value of the school food service role.
In fall 2006 Surry Elementary School began offering free samples of new, healthier foods, including those that incorporated local vegetables. Cook Naomi Watson also found that the local carrots were the one vegetable she knew the children would eat so she began offering them more frequently, as sides and integrated in the meals. Ms. Watson began farm to school by purchasing five pounds of local carrots to try them out. By the end of the season she was purchasing larger quantities of carrots and had worked with the farmer to plan a crop of cucumbers for the following year. At MDES, Linda Mailhot used signage to let her customers know that they were eating local foods and where those foods came from, helping to build some name recognition for the farms.
Farm to School in Maine – Growing a Movement
When the Hancock County Farm to School Directory was published and distributed in 2007, it met a strong, positive reception. John Rebar, Director of University of Maine Cooperative Extension, sent hearty praise, and distributed the Directory to all of the Cooperative Extension offices in Maine and the Agriculture Council of Maine, urging development of a similar publication for each county in Maine. The Maine Nutrition Network asked HCFTS staff to present the Directory at their 2007 statewide Annual Meeting, and the State Department of Agriculture has also discussed using the Hancock County Directory as a model for a statewide Farm to School Directory.
HCFTS staff also contributed heavily to the formation of national, regional, and statewide farm to school networks. Several farm to school projects have begun emerging around Maine in 2006 and 2007, and HCFTS project staff have shared resources and information with fledgling farm to school efforts around the state. HCFTS also helped launch statewide farm to school discussions and a Maine farm to school listserv that started in fall 2006, enabling better communication between existing and new farm to school programs. For the first time, Maine Harvest Lunch day will take place at schools across the state on September 26 this year, thanks to the growing statewide farm to school collaboration and Maine’s Department of Education.
Children – Knowing and Eating Fresh Vegetables
One of the project’s primary objectives is to provide more fresh produce to children as part of their school meals. In our pilot schools, fresh vegetables have become more accessible, and more popular among students. Through field trips and hands-on projects related to farming, nutrition, and food, children are also becoming more connected, in real and meaningful ways, to the food that they eat and where that food comes from. In subsequent years, HCFTS will work to deepen the curricular connections related to farm to school.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Hancock County Farm to School Directory
The HCFTS Directory was the major publication produced as part of the HCFTS project. Several schools requested more information on how to connect with local farms. Finding farm names and contact information was a first barrier. One or two schools had found that some farms wouldn’t return their calls, perhaps due to lack of interest in selling to school markets. The HCFTS Directory removes these first barriers, by publishing information about farms that are specifically interested in selling to school customers, along with what areas of Hancock County they deliver to, and what products they grow in different seasons. To-date this Directory has proved a useful resource to draw on, and the first of its kind in Maine.
In November 2006, the Farm to School project was featured on Family Radio Forum, a one hour interview and call-in program on community radio station WERU, produced and hosted by Ron Beard, a project partner from University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The show has an estimated audience of 7500-9500 people in a five-county region of Maine, including the project area. In addition to farmers and school cooks, the show featured a school principal’s endorsement of the project’s impacts on his students in the Mount Desert Elementary School. The farm to school radio show inspired a parent, farmer, and cook to call Healthy Acadia looking to get more involved in farm to school. Two additional farm to school sites, which will launch in fall 2007, were established as a direct result of the WERU radio show.
In May of 2007, WERU’s Family Radio Forum focused on nutrition in local schools, and featured guests who are active participants in the Hancock County Farm to School Project. Dustin Eirdosh, youth advocacy consultant and local farmer, and Maria Donahue, school health coordinator, both from School Union 98 on Mount Desert Island spoke about improvements to school lunch programs and curricula that take advantage of connections to local farms and farmers. They were joined by colleagues from the Belfast area (to the west of Hancock County) who shared details and results of a successful school garden and greenhouse operation. Listeners in five Maine counties learned what is working to connect local farmers to schools, and gained insight into how they might foster more of those connections in their own schools.
Hancock County Farm to School project successes have been featured in the following newspaper/newsletter coverage during the SARE grant period:
-Bar Harbor Times (circulation 4000) in April 2006
-Downeast Time Bank’s newsletter (circulation approximately 250-500) in summer 2006 and fall 2007
-Mount Desert Island Hospital’s Health Current spring newspaper insert (circulation 5000) in spring 2006
-Mount Desert Islander (circulation 2600), one story in March 2006, one in November 2006
-The Working Waterfront (circulation 50,000) in April 2007
HCFTS project staff and members have presented at the following conferences and workshops during the SARE grant period:
-Local Foods and Sustainable Agriculture Conference, statewide, April 2006 at Blue Hill Consolidated School – approximately 60 session attendees. Presentation by Heather Albert-Knopp, HCFTS Coordinator; Jen Schroth, Brooklin School and Carding Brook Farm.
-GRUB Potluck, February 2007, Blue Hill, hosted by the Good Life Center – approximately 20 attendees. Presentation by Heather Albert-Knopp, HCFTS Coordinator; Tim Fuller, Healthy Acadia Community Coordinator; Dustin Eirdosh, School Union 98.
-Maine Child Nutrition Services, Statewide Meeting for Food Service Directors and Superintendents, April 2007 – approximately 200 attendees. Presentation by Linda Mailhot, School Food Service Director, Mount Desert Elementary School.
-Association of State and Territorial Public Health Nutrition Directors (ASTPHND) Annual Meeting, June 2007, approximately 100 session attendees. Presentation by Heather Albert-Knopp, HCFTS Coordinator.
-Maine Nutrition Network Annual Meeting, September 2007, approximately 100 attendees projected. Presentation by Heather Albert-Knopp, HCFTS Coordinator, with other Maine and New Hampshire collaborators.
Healthy Acadia has developed a website featuring our Hancock County Farm to School Directory and other resources, online at http://www.healthyacadia.org/farmtoschool.html.
During Year One of HCFTS (2006) four farms began selling their products to two area schools, Mount Desert Elementary School (MDES) and Surry Elementary School, with support from the HCFTS Coordinator, Heather Albert-Knopp. In both schools, carrots were the first local product to be incorporated. MDES soon began also buying squash, chard, eggs, lettuce, and more. Surry Elementary will expand in 2007 to also purchase local cucumbers and onions. Both schools found that children ate approximately three times the number of local carrots as they did conventional carrots. At MDES, cook Linda Mailhot attributed this to the better flavor of local carrots and “brand recognition” that the carrots were from Beech Hill Farm so students knew they’d be tasty. At Surry Elementary, local carrots were incorporated into more recipes than conventional carrots because cook Naomi Watson “knew kids would eat them [local carrots]”. All four farms will continue selling to these schools in year two of the project, and both Beech Hill Farm and Clayfield Farm have since begun actively looking for additional school customers. Between September and December 2006, these two schools together spent approximately $1430 on local food.
In 2007, Year Two of HCFTS, three additional elementary schools and one Head Start Center will begin purchasing local produce while the original pilot schools continue and expand their purchasing to include new crops. The Year Two farm to school sites all contacted HCFTS after learning about successful Year One projects. HCFTS projects are always initiated by at least one local person, either a farmer, school cook, administrator, or parent. In 2007 a total of eight farms will be selling produce to five schools and one Head Start center. We estimate that 820 students, or about 12% of students in Hancock County, will have the opportunity to eat fresh vegetables in their school lunches this fall. The economic extent of these 2007 local purchases will be calculated in December 2007.
In 2007 SARE funds were supplemented with additional funds from the Community Food Security Coalition and RMA which allowed us to publish and distribute the Hancock County Farm to School Directory. The Directory features information on Hancock County farms, seafood companies, and food distributors that have expressed strong interest in selling their products to local schools along with practical how-to information for starting farm to school projects. By fall 2007, at least 90% of Hancock County schools will have received copies of the Directory for their use. The Hancock County Directory can be downloaded from Healthy Acadia’s Farm to School website, http://www.healthyacadia.org/farmtoschool.html.
The results of this project are wide-ranging, from increases of healthy local vegetables in the diets of area students, to increased sales of local agricultural production by local farmers. But more importantly, the project found resonance in all who were touched by its activities and all who heard stories of the project, from teachers, students, school food service folks, and farmers. There was a consensus that it makes good sense to buy nutritious food from local sources through an exchange based not only on demand, supply, quality and price, but on relationships. The project created fertile ground and predictable systems in which this exchange could take place and through which these relationships could grow. The project is easily replicable, in other geographic areas and with other farm customers. By providing this linkage, the project helps build a local food system, a vital part of a healthy community.
The project is an exercise in basic community development, showing people another way to intervene in the trend toward a fully “industrialized” food system and the drive to squeeze out another penny in profit from each tomato, each carrot, each squash, each apple. By showing positive results from relatively little investment, we show how we can put back into local communities what purely economic considerations are leaching away– the health, environmental and social benefits of food produced and consumed locally.
Through the Hancock County Farm to School project we have found that there is currently a lot of enthusiasm and support for farm to school projects in the communities we serve. Ongoing monitoring will help determine the long-term sustainability of farm to school purchasing relationships. Additionally, while the HCFTS project was able to help link farm to school purchasing with the school curriculum in a small way, more concerted efforts will be needed in some schools to build and sustain these connections. Where farm to school projects are linked to the curriculum, and supported by school staff, administration, students, and community members, they will be more likely to succeed. In our region, preliminary research is also needed to assess the readiness for farm to school among schools and farms in our neighboring Washington County. Washington County is considered to be Maine’s poorest county, and farm to school projects here could provide fresh, healthy food for underserved children and youth, while providing market expansion opportunities for more remote rural farms. A Farm to School Directory for Washington County, modeled on the Hancock County Directory, could be a next step to help launch farm to school purchasing. Beyond our two-county region, Farm to School Directories in other Maine counties will help facilitate farm to school purchasing.
In addition, there is a great opportunity to build on our current successes and momentum to expand farm to school to more schools in Hancock County. During the first project years, we have found that primarily small, rural elementary schools have been most interested in starting farm to school programs. We would like to work with larger school systems, such as the Ellsworth Schools with more than 1200 students, to establish effective larger-scale farm to school programs.