Healthy Acadia’s Downeast Farm to School Program created the School Supported Agriculture (SSA) Program in 2010 as a way to increase farm sales to local schools and establish lasting partnerships between schools and farms. Our coordinators arranged SSA Agreements between 19 farms and 31 schools in Hancock and Washington Counties, Maine over the past three years, providing a significant boost to the local farm economy while increasing the amount of fresh, healthy food that school children eat on a daily basis.
Objective 1: Prepare farms and schools with information. Project leader will prepare a guide for farmers with purchasing, delivery and payment requirements for school food service.
We expanded our original Downeast Farm to School Guide for Farmers, with best practices based on our local experience as well that of other groups statewide and nationally to also include school cook contact information so that interested farmers can market directly to schools. We created different versions for Hancock and Washington Counties so that contact information would be most relevant.
A print version of the farmer directory will be updated and distributed to sixty schools. Project leader will also prepare recipes and seasonal menus that spotlight and maximize local vegetable use in school lunches.
In 2010 we published a revised second edition of the Farm to School Directory of Food Producers; providing 80 schools and 10 institutions with direct access to more than 70 local producers in Hancock and Washington counties. A third edition of the directory was updated and reformatted however it was not printed and distributed. We have found that school cooks tend to depend on the direct relationships with farmers that our coordinators are able to support. We do however still see the Directory a tool to enable cooks to be more self-sufficient in their ability to contact farmers directly, and will post it to our website which is currently being revised and will be launching very soon. We will also consider a reprinting in the near future. Recipes and menus are regularly shared with school cooks.
Objective 2: Solidify strong partnerships between schools and farms. The project leader and Washington County Farm to School Coordinator will convene meetings between farmers and school cooks to introduce and solidify SSA agreements. Ten schools will agree to enter into SSA agreements with farms in the first stage. Over the course of the agreement, the project leader and coordinator will provide technical assistance to participating schools and farms.
Twenty three schools entered into School Supported Agriculture (SSA) agreements in 2010 to purchase product from 14 farms, enabling school cooks to contract and pre-order in spring for six weeks of fall produce deliveries, reducing barriers and increasing revenue for local farms. In 2011, fourteen schools entered into formal agreements. Part of the reason for the drop in SSAs was good news: several schools indicated that because of the strong relationships we helped them build in 2010 with their farmer, they no longer required organizational assistance to contact the farmer and set up expectations for fall purchasing. This is exactly the leadership we hope to instill in the cooks in our region. Unfortunately some of the 2010 SSA schools decided not to participate. This was in large part due to working with farmers who were unable to fulfill their customers’ expectations in 2010.
In spring of 2012, we established 6 SSA agreements in Hancock County and 5 in Washington County. In Hancock County we made a decision to focus our efforts on a single school district with a high level of readiness to increase their local food purchases. Within this district, comprised of ten schools and representing over 2,600 students, six entered into formal SSA Agreements with four farms. Two of the remaining schools have established relationships with local farms or home growers that sell or donate produce to them. The other two schools will feature local foods during Maine Harvest Lunch week this fall, but are not yet ready to commit to multiple weeks of local purchases.
In our annual report we reported on another district of four schools in Hancock County where we thought the food service director was ready to begin working with a local farm for SSA purchasing. However this spring the director did not return phone calls or emails. This disappointment helped lead to our decision to work with the schools that were expressing the most readiness and interest in order to make the most of our time and to ensure that we were making an impact in schools that would eventually adopt this work on their own in a sustained manner. We hope also to continue to promote and build upon our successes in order to increase interest among all schools.
In Washington County we arranged agreements with five farmers to supply at least 6 weeks of produce in the fall to five schools serving a total of nearly one thousand students and representing an approximate sales volume of $1500. We are hopeful to secure informal agreements in the fall with other schools and farms that were interested but unable to provide a spring commitment.
After an evaluation of the pilot project, the project leader will write a best practices guide for farmers and school cooks. Then she will hold a farmer workshop to generate more support for the program and expand the number of schools and farms participating in SSA agreements. In the second stage of SSA agreements, the goal is for twenty schools to enter into contracts with local farmers.
Washington County FTS coordinator attends monthly county Food Alliance meetings to stay connected with conventional and organic farmers and most are aware of the opportunities that exist to develop wholesale school markets. Specific FTS presentations to the farming community have been limited due to busy farmer schedules but the coordinator’s presence at the regular meetings fulfills the objective to generate more support for the SSA program. One on one farmer outreach, recruitment, and education continue to be important and ongoing priorities in both counties.
Objective 3: Build community awareness and disseminate program progress. Prepare and distribute outreach materials for school staff to provide parents (i.e., a flier about the SSA program and the farmer selling to the school); create a media advocacy campaign that will reach across the two-county region (i.e., regional and area press releases and two radio interviews with participating farmers)
Farmers were given a one-page SSA introduction each spring and then FTS staff sent email reminders and contacted farmers at the start of the fall delivery schedule. Colorful posters were distributed to all participating schools, which included a farmer photo, information about their farm and what produce items would be delivered to the school.
We shared best practices with community planners and organizers at four statewide conferences: the Maine Planning Association, the Healthy Maine Partnerships, and MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer conference, and at the May 2012 Maine Farm to School Network Conference.
We facilitated media outreach resulting in numerous articles in weekly papers, Healthy Acadia’s e-newsletter, and a Farm to School radio broadcast on WERU Community Radio; raising awareness among parents, school officials and the community at large. We have developed a Downeast Farm to School e-newsletter which goes out to farmers, school staff, parents, and other community members on a semi-regular basis.
Write a guide to using SSA contract agreements and distribute it through the Northeast and the National Farm to School network and Maine Eat Local Foods Coalition.
We have not written a formal guide but we have presented our SSA model practices and lessons learned at regional events to publicize the model to the wider community. Additionally, we have provided collaborative leadership to launch the Maine Farm to School Network. Our Hancock County Coordinator serves as the Downeast District Representative to the Network, collecting contact information of those involved in Farm to School from each school to facilitate information sharing and collaboratively organizing the statewide Farm to School Conference that took place in May 2012.
Through the Maine Farm to School Workgroup, our Hancock County Coordinator collaboratively hosted a Maine Farm to School Intern with two other organizers, providing support to the intern to design, conduct, and analyze a survey of local foods procurement across all schools in Maine.
Both the Network and the Workgroup provide effective platforms for our coordinators to share experiences, tools, and best practices with other farm to school leaders in Maine.
Healthy Acadia’s Downeast Farm to School Program has been working to strengthen relationships between schools and farms in Hancock County since 2005 and Washington County since 2009. We developed the School Supported Agriculture (SSA) project to build on the strengths and existing capacity of Maine’s Downeast farms. Many of the farms already employ Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as an effective tool to manage sales, production, cash flow, and distribution. The school-supported agriculture model utilizes agreements made between farms and schools similar to the CSA model. Our coordinators, one based in each county, organize meetings between school cooks and farmers during the spring to establish expectations for multiple weeks of fall purchasing. The SSA Agreements cover the types and quantities of product to be purchased, the delivery schedule, and the best communication methods between the two parties.
As we observed farmland in vegetable production on the decline and childhood food insecurity and obesity increasing, we identified the SSA model as one tool to bolster our local farm economy while feeding children fresh, healthy food. SSAs address the challenges expressed by farmers in regards to vendor relationships with local schools. SSAs provide farmers with a multi-week purchase commitment enabling them to plant crops for emerging institutional markets. Schools enjoy greater predictability in product, with a delivery and pricing schedule that enables school kitchens to serve seasonal lunches. SSA purchasing partnerships expand the amount of food purchased by schools and improve student access to fresh foods, thereby creating an environment where students and families are provided with exemplary models on which to base their own consumption.
Methods for developing SSA Agreements are provided in the Introduction and throughout the Objectives section.
Since launching the School Supported Agriculture Program, we have seen significant improvements in the relationships between many schools and farms. This has led to increased sales for those farms that have demonstrated high commitment to their partner schools and who have provided them with a product that is appealing, delivered on time, and sold at a reasonable price that schools can afford. While we have heard about some disappointments of farmers over committing themselves and running out of product for their school, or delivering produce in dirty boxes, overall the schools have been happy with their partner farms and have kept coming back to the same farm year after year. This has allowed trust to build up between the two parties and has helped achieve our goal of creating sustained partnerships between schools and farms that are mutually beneficial, easy to maintain, and will last beyond the grant period. In some cases, we have farmers who have dedicated certain rows or fields to their school and are organizing field trips for students to visit the farm.
In 2009 and 2010 we sent surveys to school cooks to determine how much local food they purchased and to understand how it went for them. In 2009 we observed $3,000 in local purchases and in 2010 it went up to $5,000. In 2010 we also conducted phone interviews with school cooks and farmers that participated in the SSA Program. Feedback was overall very positive, and suggestions were used to improve the program the following year. For example some cooks suggested discussing pricing more explicitly in the initial spring SSA meeting so that there would be no big surprises in the fall. This now is incorporated into our regular practices, keeping in mind that crop prices fluctuate and that small growers may not be able to guarantee an exact price but could at least suggest a typical range.
In 2011 we did not survey cooks to determine local purchase amounts. Our coordinator was closely involved in an effort through the Maine Farm to School Workgroup to conduct a statewide local foods procurement study among schools. We determined that the best approach would be to encourage Hancock and Washington County schools cooks to respond to this survey, rather than sending them two. Unfortunately our local response rate was not very high despite our best efforts. We therefore have a gap in purchasing data for that year. The study that was conducted, while it had some methodological flaws, did produce interesting results and will serve as a pilot study that can be improved upon in the coming year to gather more widespread and accurate data at the state level. The report is attached for reference.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Our printed and online materials include the Downeast Directory of Producers, the Downeast Farm to School Guide for Farmers, SSA posters for schools, the Downeast Farm to School e-newsletter, and our SSA template. Other outreach efforts were described in the Objectives section.
We have served more than 50 schools and 70 farms, helping to strengthen commitments and systems within schools to support ongoing local foods purchasing. We estimate over 3,000 Washington County and over 4,000 Hancock County students have been reached, either by eating fresh local foods in their school cafeterias, participating in a new school garden, or receiving food systems lessons from our coordinators. Over 3,600 students will receive fresh local produce in the fall of 2012 as a result of the SSA agreements made this spring.
Specific accomplishments include:
– Updated the Downeast Maine Directory of Producers and added Washington County producers, providing 80 schools and ten institutions with direct access to more than 70 local producers.
– Facilitated SSA Agreements between 23 schools and 15 farms.
– Facilitated media outreach resulting in numerous articles in weekly papers and a one-hour farm to school radio broadcast on WERU Community Radio; raising awareness among parents, school officials and the community at large about farm to school and the SSA program.
– Offered School Garden 101 in Hancock County in partnership with UMaine Cooperative Extension.
– Provided technical support to farmers and school cooks to ensure successful fulfillment of SSA agreements.
– Convened a Washington County Food Service Professional Development workshop with over 25 attendees.
– Facilitated 14 SSA agreements between schools and farms.
– Taught School Garden 101 in Washington County, and 201 in Hancock County
– Launched Maine Farm to School Network
– Secured a FoodCorps position for Washington County
– Provided technical support to farmers and school cooks to ensure successful fulfillment of SSA agreements.
– Appeared on WERU Talk of the Towns radio show featuring the Downeast Food Heritage Collaborative (DEFHC), which we founded with College of the Atlantic and The Woodlawn Museum
– Organized “Apple Week” festivities with DEFHC including public events and hands-on cider pressing and education in 16 schools
– Presented at the Maine Farm to School Network Conference on a state-wide study of local foods procurement by schools, and on the Apple Project.
– Facilitated 11 SSA agreements between schools and farms.
As Farm to School has grown as a national movement, the SSA model that we developed is a tool that could be easily replicated elsewhere. We have shared our SSA template with partners around Maine and the Northeast, and indeed, we know that other partners in Maine are utilizing advance purchase agreements in their own communities. We are more than happy to continue to share this template and our model with others.
We have observed that many Farm to School programs nationwide, and within our own state, place a strong emphasis on student engagement in school gardening. While we commend these efforts, and promote and support them ourselves, we also recognize the important role that local farms can and should continue to play in the broader Farm to School movement. Our program, with its emphasis on the SSA Program, remains very committed to promoting local foods procurement as a central tenant of Farm to School.
We have found that some schools and farms face significant infrastructure barriers to implementing truly robust Farm to School programs. In the case of schools, many lack cold and/or dry storage that would allow them to purchase local farm products in bulk thus reducing their costs. Additional storage would also help schools to capture produce from their own gardens when they are in bloom as well as from local farms at the height of the season when prices are lowest. Many farms in our region lack season extension equipment such as dedicated hoop houses and cold frames, which would allow them to produce more food in late spring, fall and into the winter months when school is in session. We have developed a seed grant program to help fund this type of equipment and other Farm to School initiatives in schools. Having funds dedicated to directly supporting school kitchens in their efforts to participate in our program likely will result in more committed Farm to School purchasing relationships.