A Model Network

The National Farm to School Network

As far as strategies to achieve sustainable farm and food systems go, it doesn’t get much better than farm to school. This multi-pronged approach seeks to improve kids’ diets and farmers’ economic viability by bringing local agriculture products into school cafeterias and garden-based nutrition education into school curriculums. And according to the recent USDA Farm to School Census, farm to school efforts across the country are growing. Currently, 42 percent of all school districts engage in some form of farm to school activity, up from 39 percent when the first Census was conducted in 2013.

A Common Language
Back in 2002, Anupama Joshi, NFSN’s Executive Director and Co-Founder, was working at Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Planning Institute (UEPI) to expand farm to school efforts in California.

“At that point in time there were just a handful of states implementing farm to school,” Joshi said. She began reaching out to others involved in farm to school around the country and soon learned that “there was a lot of need for sharing information and for a common vision and agenda for this work.”

In response to this need, Joshi, along with other farm to school practitioners, initiated a planning process in 2005 to set up a network that would support farm to school efforts nationally. They hosted informal and formal conversations across the country to assess the call for for a national structure and the functions it would serve.  As a result of that nearly two-year planning process, NFSN was set up in 2007 with the intent of focusing on networking, information-sharing and policy advocacy.

As the farm to school movement has expanded, with initiatives in every state, so has the demand for leadership at the national level, along with research and commonly understood metrics for evaluation.

“Farm to school looks quite different in different regions, and people define the term differently,” said Joshi. “As the movement was growing, people were looking for guidance on a common language.” So a few years ago, NFSN defined farm to school as having at least one of these three core elements: local and regional food procurement; hands-on learning through gardens; and educational activities about agriculture, food health, or nutrition.

Having a common language has helped to build the movement because it makes it easier to talk about what farm to school and its benefits are. Said Joshi, “That’s the sort of role the network plays in the movement.”

As the need for connecting people with information, national policy advocacy, and networking remains, the intent with which NFSN was set up with in 2007 is largely the same today, and is the basis of the network’s activities, carried out through strong partnerships - NFSN’s eight Regional Lead Agencies and 51 State Leads (including DC) are organizations affiliated with the network serving as point of contact for farm to school.

“Farm to school looks quite different in different regions, and people define the term differently,” said Joshi. “As the movement was growing, people were looking for guidance on a common language.”

Information Sharing
Networking and peer-to-peer learning among farm to school practitioners and stakeholders is integral to the movement’s growth. NFSN facilitates this kind of learning through their popular biennial National Farm to Cafeteria Conference  (happening this June in Madison, Wis.) and also with their network of state and regional leads, practitioners and professionals who provide support and expertise to others in their states and regions around the country. NFSN works with leads to conduct trainings on topics relevant to stakeholders, such as GAP certification, funding possibilities, and garden education. These leads provide regular reports to NFSN about local and state efforts and initiatives that NFSN uses to assess where the movement is at and what is necessary for it to grow further.

NFSN also curates an extensive library of resources on a wide breadth of topics related to farm to school on their website, with toolkits, fact sheets, archived webinars, research reports and more. Plus, NFSN develops fact sheets and resources on topics that on-the-ground practitioners articulate a need for.

“Last year, we partnered with Farm Credit nationally to conduct a survey to find out how our stakeholders partnered with them,” said Joshi. This effort produced a webinar that highlighted such partnerships and provided tips for farm to school stakeholders to connect with Farm Credit for financial support.

The Voice of the Movement
Joshi sees NFSN as “the voice of the movement” in Washington. The organization has two full-time policy staff who advocate for federal policies and programs to support farm to school. Their current legislative focus is the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (CNR) and they also monitor agriculture , transportation, and education legislation.  

NFSN and the movement had a major victory in the 2010 CNR with the establishment of the USDA Farm to School Program, the first ever USDA competitive grants program dedicated solely to funding farm to school. The USDA also established regional farm to school positions throughout the country with staff to support and facilitate farm to school efforts. The CNR is currently up for reauthorization and NFSN is working to increase funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program and expand its reach to include early care and education settings.

Growing Farm to School
Joshi believes NFSN plays a critical role in expanding farm to school into more communities around the country. The organization started an initiative called Seed Change in 2015, targeting four states (Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania) that NFSN identified as ripe due to the lack of farm to school sites and high levels of childhood obesity.

“Seed Change is a three pronged approach,” explains Joshi. NFSN leverages funding for mini-grants to school districts in each state. These grants cultivate interest in farm to school and jumpstart programs. NFSN has given away more than 100 such grants in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania. Additionally, two training and demonstration sites have been set up in each state, and a statewide network is being developed.

“Without the commitment, vision and creativity of farmers, food service, educators and parents at the 42,587 farm to school sites; and our partners across the country, NFSN would not exist.”

Looking Ahead
Joshi sees great growth potential in the Seed Change initiative and is looking at expanding it into different states. The organization also wants to broaden farm to school in Native communities, and early care and education sites.

Joshi also underscored the critical role of network organizations in building movements and the challenge in conveying that role, especially to foundations and donors. “Funding a school garden is much sexier than funding a network, but the network that is built around that garden is what makes it strong and sustainable for students and communities in years to come. "Articulating the role and benefit of backbone organizations is critical for the success of movements. ”

Certainly, the national-level excitement for farm to school around the country is attributable in part to NFSN’s movement-building and advocacy work. A few years ago, the organization succeeded in getting a Congressional Resolution passed that established October as National Farm to School Month. This past October, their promotion efforts reached more than six million people.  That’s exponential growth for a movement and a sustainable food system strategy that, less than 15 years ago, was largely unknown.

Joshi is incredibly grateful for the thousands of farm to school stakeholders and supporters across the country who believe in NFSN’s work and mission. “Without the commitment, vision and creativity of farmers, food service, educators and parents at the 42,587 farm to school sites; and our partners across the country, NFSN would not exist.”

To learn more about the National Farm to School Network, visit www.farmtoschool.org

Photo Credit: National Farm to School Network