Well, it’s been about three weeks since I returned from the 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference: Moving Forward Together in Madison, Wisconsin. When I first returned, my mind was so full of new ideas and inspiration that it was difficult to condense what I’d learned into a short summary. Now that I’ve been able to let things sink in a bit I can relay my biggest takeaways to you.
But first, let me extend my most sincere appreciation to all of the folks, friends and family who donated to help send me to this conference. It was an incredibly valuable experience for me. I learned so much that will help improve our programs here in Southwest Colorado and reach more kids through gardening and healthy nutrition now and in the years to come. Thank you!!
Okay, now for the takeaways:
1) The Farm to School Movement is a BIG DEAL!!!
Over 1,040 participants from across the country came together in the capitol of the Cheese State to learn, network and celebrate the Farm to School movement. (Want to learn more about Farm to School? See our resource page here.)
I was truly blown away by how many folks are doing work similar to ours here at The Garden Project – providing healthy local food to children across the country through school cafeterias and preschools and teaching them how to grow their own food through gardening programs and farm field trips. The folks I met included school food service directors, cafeteria staff, school garden support organization staff, teachers & educators, AmeriCorps and FoodCorps members, County Extension agents, state and national Farm to School policy and program staff, farmers, and students.
Debra Eschmeyer, Executive Director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition to the White House gave a rousing keynote speech on the second day of the conference. She assured all of us that when the Obama administration is complete, their work on childhood nutrition will carry on. Debra encouraged all of us to continue putting our hearts and souls into the Farm to School movement, because over the past decade we have seen dramatic changes in childhood health as a result, and organizations like ours are essential to carrying on this work. With over 1,000 people in the room, it felt like a collective circle of support – if we all keep doing this work in our communities, together we are creating a healthier and more vibrant generation in America. As you can tell, I definitely drank the Kool-Aid, and it still tastes oh-so-good!
2) Sharing is KEY!!!
Rather than operating in isolation, which can be easy to do (in rural Colorado, for instance) – we need to take full advantage of all of the resources available within the Farm to School movement, such as state and national networks, curriculum resources, professional trainings and local partnerships.
In a breakout group for School Garden Support Organizations, we shared our successes and challenges in supporting school garden programs. Finally, I was surrounded by other professionals who thought about the same issues that I do every day: How do you fundraise for a school garden project when schools and districts are strapped for cash? Who really leads the school garden programs for the long term - teachers, AmeriCorps members, volunteers, paid nonprofit staff? How do you weigh a handful of carrots and charge the cafeteria for the garden produce? How do you prove your program’s impact to principals, teachers, districts and donors? How do you know how much of an impact the garden is actually having on the student’s lives, now and into the future? By sharing with each other, we all came away with great ideas to implement in our own programs, and I now have a few new tricks up my sleeve.
I’ll admit that I was hoping a silver bullet approach for school garden programs might fall into my lap at the conference. I assumed some of the folks who had been doing this work for many years would have all the answers. And while it was incredible to meet some of the pioneers of the farm to school movement, I realized that in many ways they are still figuring out how to address some of the same challenges in their garden programs. Slowly, I realized that there are countless different approaches to managing school garden programs across the country, and that’s okay. There are pluses and minuses to each approach, and we simply need to tease out which approach will work best within our own local communities.
3) Collaboration is where it’s at!
I felt fortunate to be part of a large contingent from Colorado who attended the conference this year. This was partly due to the gumption of Livewell Colorado who helped set up a Barnraiser fundraising site for us to use – thank you Livewell! In addition to myself, several other folks from SW CO attended, including: Jim Dyer (Colorado State Co-Lead of the National Farm to School Network & Director of Healthy Community Food Systems), Krista Garand (Durango 9R School District Food Service Director and Garden Project board member), Janet Fogel (Mancos School District Food Service Director and previous Garden Project board member), and Christine Foote (Montezuma School to Farm Project).
Since returning from the conference together, we all have been collaborating more than we were before. Jim’s group organized a Farm to Preschool Workshop with us at one of our gardens, to empower more preschool providers to start their own school gardens or use our existing gardens as outdoor classrooms. Krista and I met to plan greater Garden to Cafeteria integration into 9R, bringing more school garden produce into the cafeterias to be used for school lunches. Janet sent me a copy of her CO Health Foundation
grant application, so that we might build off of their work and apply for funding. Christine sent me photos of their drought tables, which are used in their school gardens to model watersheds, erosion and water resources, which our fantastic volunteer Ted Creighton has already used to build four drought tables for us!
Really, this was my most important take-away from the conference. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. School nutrition services should be one of our most important
partners. Don’t forget the school board, principals and staff! Help them to feel engaged in farm to school by inviting them to gardening classes and local food school lunches and gifting them with garden produce and flowers. Get buy-in from the school district, principals and teachers by tying garden classes directly to curriculum and standards. Encourage independent usage of the school garden through teacher mentoring and coaching. Utilize CSU Extension for greater technical assistance in developing garden food safety protocols and professional development for teachers. Don’t be afraid to ask for what your program really needs – like a paid garden coordinator- and encourage the school’s PTO to fundraise for these positions. Develop our North Stars – what is our dream endpoint of Farm to School in our community, and how are we going to get there together?
At The Garden Project, we envision a garden in every school and community in La Plata County. If you have ideas or want to be part of this process I would love to hear from you! Email me here!
- Sandhya Tillotson