Building the skills: Strengthening farm-to-school relationships, strengthening communities

Final Report for CNE07-019

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2007: $9,861.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $2,900.00
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Kelly Coleman
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture
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Project Information

Summary:

In recent years, both the demand for local food in schools and farmer interest in building direct farm to school relationships has grown, but the obstacles to building such relationships can be challenging. While there have been many Massachusetts organizations working to increase market opportunities for farmers, knowledge of issues specific to farm to school sales, such as procurement policies, insurance and food safety requirements, and methods for dealing with challenges related to product volume and seasonality, remained limited. This project was designed to increase the capacity of local agricultural and other organizations to make enduring connections between schools and farms and thereby increase the volume of local food being sold to and served in Massachusetts schools.

Project Objectives:
  • Establish advisory committee for the project consisting of representatives from the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, the Massachusetts buy-local groups, local farms, local schools, and UMass Extension or USDA.

    Develop and implement three training workshops focused on issues specific to farm to school sales.

    Develop an informational packet for use in workshops and by technical assistance providers in regional outreach to farms.

    Develop regional outreach efforts, tailored and organized by training participants.

    Regular email communication from the project, updating members of the network about farm to school efforts in the state.

Research

Materials and methods:
  • Advisory Committee members were chosen based on the need for a variety of perspectives and areas of expertise, and asked to think actively about what skills and knowledge base an effective farm to school organizer would most need to develop. The committee helped to refine the scope of each workshop.

    Speakers and presenters for the workshops came from a variety of backgrounds and were all experts in their fields. Speakers included a representative of the Department of Education, which coordinates the federal school lunch and commodity programs, and an Extension educator who came to speak about her work with food safety issues and requirements. A food service director in a local public school district spoke about her experiences with local food procurement, and a local farmer who has been selling produce directly to schools for a number of years spoke about his experiences. Because the goal was to learn as much about the realities of school lunch and farm to school relationships as possible, we consulted directly with the experts.

    The informational packet is geared towards people interested in working with farm and schools without a background in either areas, but it should also be a useful resource for farmers looking to sell to schools and school purchasers interested in starting a farm to school program at their school. To that end, it contains materials and handouts from each workshop and an overview of each subject the workshops covered. It also contains an exhaustive list of local and national resources.

    When this project was developed, the goal was to encourage regional farm to school efforts by offering the necessary training and ongoing support through the development of a state-wide network. We successfully put our planned methods into practice by offering workshops and ongoing communications, but the eventual outcomes varied, as discussed below.

    Because most of the organizations that sent representatives to the workshops were not ready to take on much direct farm to school work, we decided that the best way to capitalize on the resources we had was to make the information widely available not only to our participating organizations, school purchasers and farmers but also to parents, teachers, school nurses, and activists. To that end, we have created a page on our website containing the materials we developed.

    Participants were kept appraised of developments in the project throughout and continue to receive CISA’s Farm to School E-newsletter, which regularly features profiles of farm to school efforts in the state. All the coordinating organizations continue to collaborate on a variety of efforts.

Research results and discussion:
  • The advisory committee, which consisted of six representatives from Massachusetts organizations, held two meetings during the course of this project.

    Three workshops focusing on farm to school issues were offered. The first workshop, which focused on relationship-building between farms and schools and sharing the expertise of the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, drew 11 people from eight organizations. The second workshop, which focused on procurement issues, drew eight people from seven organizations. The third workshop, which covered supply-side issues, drew 10 representatives from seven organizations.

    Organizations that sent representatives to these trainings include CISA, SEMAP (Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership), Essex Grown, Berkshire Grown, UMass Extension, Berkshire-Pioneer RC&D, the Food Project, Project Bread, and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. The organizations work with farmers throughout Massachusetts and approach agricultural and food access issues from a variety of perspectives.

    During the 2007-2008 school year, 80 Massachusetts public schools purchased local food directly from more than sixty local farms. At least 24 private schools and colleges purchased local food directly for 20 local farms. While not all of these purchases can be attributed to the efforts of participants in the Massachusetts Farm to School Network, many of those schools and farmers have received support from one or more of the participating organizations.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The resource guide is available at http://www.buylocalfood.com/farmtoschool.htm.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Ultimately, while the workshops strengthened the capacity of all the participating organizations to offer farm to school support, most of the organizations still lack the internal resources necessary to launch complete farm to school programs. Relationship-building requires not only the appropriate informational background but a real staff time commitment, and most of the organizations continue to struggle with that challenge. However, the knowledge base of the people working on related issues in Massachusetts has been greatly expanded, which minimizes the time needed to troubleshoot relationships or offer guidance to self-directed parents, teachers, and school purchasers.

The workshop attracted participants from a variety of organizations and brought a variety of perspectives to the discussions surrounding farm to school efforts in Massachusetts. Some participants focus more on market-building for farmers, while others are primarily concerned with eradicating hunger in the state or providing healthier food choices to vulnerable populations. Providing a broad base of organizations with the skills needed to address farm to school issues has assisted more integrated efforts, such as the farm to school work of the Target:Hunger program of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, which has received input from the Massachusetts Farm to School Project.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

There are many general resources for people and organizations interested in working on farm to school issues, but much of the necessary information surrounding purchasing policy, state policies, and food safety varies quite a bit from state to state. The development of a Massachusetts-specific farm to school resource guide is an invaluable contribution to future farm to school efforts. Much of the information the guide contains was quite inaccessible and dense, so compiling it in a useable format removes a major barrier to responding to further inquiries.

Future Recommendations

While this project did a lot to prepare more people and organizations in Massachusetts to do farm to school work, more money and resources need to be committed. Long-term investment in building farm to school relationships is vital, because the obstacles to building new relationships are great and ongoing commitment is necessary to maintaining them.

Ongoing work surrounding policy related to school lunch is also a central piece to farm to school work. Many schools and farmers have built strong relationships by thinking creatively and committing themselves to making change, but as long as purchasing directly from local farms requires moving against the tide, substantive change is going to be difficult.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.