Downeast Maine Farm to School

Final Report for CNE08-050

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2008: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Doug Michael
Healthy Acadia Coalition
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Project Information

Summary:

In this project, Healthy Acadia worked with schools in two rural counties of Maine to strengthen their capacity for local food sourcing and building viable institutional markets for area farms. Key components of the project included conducting a two-county assessment of the readiness and capacity of schools to purchase from local farms and to provide training and technical assistance to enable schools to initiate and sustain purchasing relationships. Workshops, peer mentoring and targeted consultations were used to boost community action and build local food system capacity.

As a result of this project, over twenty farms are selling to at least twenty schools and ten institutions. The consultations with school staff helped them to secure grants from the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program and funds to start school gardens and build greenhouses.

Project Objectives:
The objectives of the SARE Community Grant were the following:
  • Develop peer mentoring supports for school food service staff related to local foods purchasing

    Provide technical assistance to school food service staff related to local foods purchasing

    Develop and implement farm to school assessment of area schools, to build understanding of the school market, its needs and its potential

    Disseminate market demand data (assessment results) to farms in our region

    Increase number of schools buying food from local producers by 100 percent during the 2008-2009 season

Introduction:

With the help of SARE, Healthy Acadia began working with two pilot schools in Hancock County in 2006. The objective was to prove that local purchasing for school food can work, and build capacity. The second grant awarded to Healthy Acadia by SARE in 2008 provided the opportunity to start farm to school programs in Washington County. Staff at Healthy Acadia have worked to create peer-mentoring relationships between school food service staff, provide technical assistance, and impact the expansion of school infrastructure. Schools in both counties have enlarged the programs by incorporating more local foods each year, setting up school garden programs, bringing students on farm field trips, holding “Harvest Lunch” events, and providing food sampling tables. Staff at Healthy Acadia used surveys and interviews to understand institutional ripeness for local food purchasing programs. The results of the assessment of school readiness and infrastructure will be shared with farmers, farm to school organizers, and other stakeholders.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Heather Albert-Knopp
  • Ron Beard
  • Tim Fuller
  • Keith Small

Research

Materials and methods:

Institutional Assessment & Market Demand Analysis

During the fall and winter of 2008-2009, Healthy Acadia staff conducted a series of surveys and interviews with school and institutional food services in Hancock and Washington Counties in an effort to answer questions about readiness to purchase local foods and available infrastructure. Schools (K-12) and other institutions in the two-county region were targeted with survey and interview tools. After the surveys were returned, the staff conducted follow up interviews on site with ten schools and nine institutions that completed the survey.

Twenty-six school food service directors, most representing single schools and some representing multiple schools completed the survey (fifty percent return rate); two higher educational institutions also completed the survey. The majority of respondents were located in Hancock County and one third was in Washington County.

The survey revealed the level of readiness and needs of schools to buy local foods from farmers. The majority of respondents have purchased local food in the past (18 schools (69%) and 9 institutions (56%)). Half of survey respondents indicated that they are “very interested” (5 on a scale of 1-5) in serving locally-grown foods in their cafeterias, with an additional third ranking their interest at a level of 4. Schools are most interested in buying local produce (cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, lettuce and bell peppers ranked the highest); institutions are interested in buying a variety of local food (bell peppers, cucumbers, chicken, apples, onions/garlic, summer squash, spinach, beef, turkey, bread, and flour ranked the highest)

Schools indicated that a regular product and price list from farmers is key and they need assistance from the farm to school coordinator to access kid-friendly recipes featuring local foods and create connections with local farms.
Storage and budget are barriers to purchasing local foods; motivations for farm to school are the interest in supporting local farmers and feeding students healthy food.

In general, most of the surveyed schools and institutions would like to increase local purchases. They may not have the capacity to expand programs currently (budget and storage restraints), but if those barriers are overcome and if connections to local producers are made these programs can grow.

Healthy Acadia contracted with the Down East Business Alliance of the Washington Hancock Community Agency to interview four farmers who have participated in farm to school purchasing. The assessment revealed that farmers are motivated to sell food to schools so that children in their community have access to fresh healthy food. The farms have created on-going relationships with schools that include selling food to school kitchens, hosting farm tours, and inviting students to help harvest foods. Farmers recognize the challenges of breaking through institutional barriers to sell to schools and competing with the prices of commodities. Based on the interviews, the Down East Business Alliance recommended that farmers learn to track their costs and price their foods accordingly. If participating farmers cost their foods appropriately they will see greater financial benefits to selling to schools.

School Food Service Peer-Mentoring

Healthy Acadia joined with the Ellsworth-area Youth Obesity Think Tank to host a series of peer learning workshops for school food service providers in Hancock County. The first workshop was held on November 13, 2008, and a subsequent workshop occurred on February 5, 2009. Children’s health was the overall theme for each workshop along with several other topics including local foods and engaging students in hands-on food projects.

School food service staff from fifteen schools attended the first workshop in November to share resources and ideas about using and getting students involved in hands-on work with fresh foods. The February workshop included strategies for conducting taste-tests of local foods and students presented on their experiences with science-based service-learning food activities. At the close of the workshop, the teachers and food service workers that participated reflected on the importance and opportunities of involving students in school food systems. These peer-learning discussions were useful and enjoyable for participating food service staff.

Many of the school food services in Washington County are purchasing local foods and integrating food into the curriculum for the first time, and as they do so they are helping each other. Examples of peer learning activities in Washington County include a farm to school workshop and garden project. The farm to school workshop in 2008 (detailed below) that Healthy Acadia hosted brought together four different schools to talk about how to start purchasing from local producers and to inspire each other’s programs. Two schools in Washington County are working together to create a shared school garden. Shead High School and Elm Street Elementary School started meeting this summer with the farm to school coordinator in Washington County to create a plan for a school garden. In the spring of 2010, these schools will break ground on a garden that will provide food for the cafeteria and inspiration for the curriculum.

School Food Service Technical Assistance

Healthy Acadia’s Farm to School Project provided assistance to several schools to apply for the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable grant program in spring of 2009. This well-timed effort – it was the first time this funding was made available in Maine – led to the successful funding of programs at eleven schools in Hancock County and seven schools in Washington County (there were fifty awards statewide). Because of Healthy Acadia’s work, most of the awarded applications included plans for local foods purchasing and those schools are now connected to farmers to purchase produce for the program (including blueberries, plums and apples). To further support the initiative for more fresh foods in schools, Healthy Acadia held a school-wide apple taste-test. At the event, a farmer presented five different varieties of apples to students in grades K-12 at Mount Desert Elementary. During the apple tasting, one student was overheard commenting to a peer, “This is the best day ever!”

This spring, Healthy Acadia staff had the chance to provide technical assistance to schools as they collected information about the readiness and infrastructure capacity of schools to buy local foods described above. The interviews provided space for the farm to school coordinators to talk to food service staff about program expansion. This fall, many of the staff from schools that were interviewed will be purchasing more local food as a result of the conversations.

In 2008, Healthy Acadia also helped organize a new Washington County Farm to School Committee in collaboration with the Washington County: One Community Coalition. Several schools and farms sent representatives to the first farm to school workshop in that county (thirty people attended). Participation in the workshop has built significant momentum for initiating farm to school purchasing in this rural county. Healthy Acadia helped the committee develop funding sources for a locally-based farm to school coordinator. The coordinator has been working to connect farms and schools (she created a directory of farmers) and build the capacity of schools to buy local food. She has convened and facilitated six meetings with school principals, superintendents, food service directors and teachers. Those connections will continue to be supported and conversations with additional community members have been initiated. In addition the coordinator collaborates with several federal and local agencies including Cooperative Extension, Soil and Water Conservation District, University of Maine, Downeast Business Alliance, and Washington County Food Alliance. As a result of her work, a school garden received grant funding for garden tools and two schools will be serving a local lunch this fall for the first time. Three Washington County schools will be participating in the Maine Harvest Lunch program, a day where locally sourced foods are offered on the school menu and curriculum is provided for grades K-8.

Research results and discussion:

Farmers
  • Over twenty farms are selling to schools in both counties

    Four Hancock County farms have begun marketing their products to schools using different strategies including one-on-one purchasing relationships, taste-test events, and phone marketing to numerous school customers

    Five farmers in Washington County will start selling to schools in fall 2009

    One Hancock County farm sells $1000 worth of carrots to a local school each year

    A Washington County blueberry farm has added post-harvest handling equipment to its operation to meet growing demand from schools

    Farmers have deeper connections to community members, especially children, in their area

School Food Service
  • Over twenty farms are selling to schools in both counties

    Four Hancock County farms have begun marketing their products to schools using different strategies including one-on-one purchasing relationships, taste-test events, and phone marketing to numerous school customers

    Five farmers in Washington County will start selling to schools in fall 2009

    One Hancock County farm sells $1000 worth of carrots to a local school each year

    A Washington County blueberry farm has added post-harvest handling equipment to its operation to meet growing demand from schools

    Farmers have deeper connections to community members, especially children, in their area

Farm to School in Maine
  • Staff at Healthy Acadia have become better connected to other farm to school stakeholders in the state; these connections led to the creation of working groups to support Maine State Legislature resolve LD1140 by studying farm to school programs and make recommendations to the state

    Information about the work in Down East Maine was shared at six conferences/workshops to inspire other farm to school programs around the state and northeast region

Children
  • Students from an elementary class went to a farm last fall to help harvest carrots and apples.

    Close to 8,000 children have been served local foods and reached by the project

Media Attention
  • The Martha Stewart Living television show will feature the farm to school program at Beech Hill Farm and Mount Desert Elementary School in January 2009, reaching audiences around the country with a story of schools using local foods, children harvesting crops at the farm while learning about agriculture, and children being actively involved in cooking and food preparation as part of their school lunch program

    Farm to school and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program were featured in three area newspaper articles, including one front page story in the Blue Hill Peninsula’s “The Weekly Packet”

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:
Publication

Institutional Assessment & Market Demand Analysis

The report on market readiness and infrastructure will be available in full online, and a condensed version will be shared with farmers this fall. The report itself and the process of creating it proved to be useful to increasing support for the farm to school program. The dialogue between Healthy Acadia staff and food services staff in the assessment interviews helped to both collect and share information. The conversations allowed space for food services staff to more fully understand local food purchasing and voice their concerns.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Over the past year, Healthy Acadia and its partners have worked to deepen connections in communities through the farm to school program. Work in the two county area included the completion of a market readiness assessment, the provision of technical assistance to school staff, and the creation of multiple learning opportunities for various stakeholders. Staff met one-on-one with food service staff from twenty schools to support their work towards increasing local food purchases. There were three workshops in the area that brought together farmers, food service staff, teachers, and parents.

In Washington County, Healthy Acadia assisted in building capacity for the institutions to buy local, and the farmers to build relationships with and sell to those markets. Work by the farm to school coordinator has also supported collaboration of two schools to create a garden.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Thus far, the farm to school program in the Down East region of Maine has built bridges between numerous farmers and their communities. The project will continue to grow to benefit more farmers by providing them access to additional markets and meaningful connections to children in their community. These deep community connections will encourage farmers to be stewards who are responsible to the land and the people nearby. And as the community attitude towards and state policies for farm to school programs grow, the profitability of farms that provide foods for schools will increase.

The attitudes of dining services staff at schools have changed over time. People who were once reticent about local foods are becoming champions of the farm to school program. School food service staff that are supported in their work to source local foods will serve as models to other schools and institutions within the region. These examples of successful programs will also influence school boards, parents, and school staff and encourage them to take similar steps. Staff at Healthy Acadia will continue to build the farm to school program and knit together communities.

Future Recommendations

Future research questions could include:
  • An analysis of farm to school programs that are well integrated into the institution. Are these programs stronger than adjunct programs?

    An investigation of the success of focusing support on schools with high readiness with the intent to promote early adaptation and provide a model for other schools in the area

    Region-wide analysis of school menus to better understand processed versus whole food use, and specific opportunities for substituting healthy local products

    Conduct a more detailed market analysis that estimates potential size of the school and institutional market for local foods based on products desired, food use, and numbers of meals served.

    A study of the best practices of farmers who sell to schools

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.