It Takes Teamwork: Ellenville Regional Hospital and Ellenville Elementary Partner in NYS Farm to School Institute

Situated in the middle of Ulster county, the Ellenville Regional Hospital Rural Health Network is one of several community-based entities dedicated to improving health outcomes in the region.

Hospital leaders applied for multiple grants focused on connecting residents with local farm products to provide access to whole foods and foods with increased nutritional value. They launched a “Farmacy” that accepts donations from local farmers and distributes these donations through the food pantry. They also introduced an online kitchen demonstration library to offer step-by-step instructions for processing and preparing locally grown produce.

Directly connecting kids to fresh fruits and vegetables was the next logical step. The hospital applied for the New York State Farm to School Institute – a year-long educational program led by Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS), to aid schools across the state in their farm to school efforts. Less than two miles separate the Ellenville elementary school providing easy access for a partnership.

Already stretched thin and overwhelmed by rapidly changing requirements forced by COVID-19, the school’s food service staff were not looking for more work. Farm to School Specialist Dyani Fitzpatrick offered a proposal they couldn’t refuse—the produce would arrive washed, packed and ready for distribution.

“Everything is completely processed and packaged in advance so the school staff doesn’t have to wash, process or store it,” she says. “The samples are delivered Thursday or Friday afternoons and we send a packet that includes information on the produce, its nutritional value, a coloring sheet and a system for kids to rate their experience with the food. All materials are also available in Spanish.”

Each student is asked to use all five senses to describe their experience of the fruit or vegetable and offer feedback through a QR code. Fitzpatrick is also working on leveraging social media to promote the program and connect students and farmers.

Ellenville Farm to School QR Code for Social Media

Fitzpatrick coordinates the food packages through the Roundout Valley Growers Association (RVGA), a farmer led-nonprofit. The 100-farm coalition headquarters are co-located with the ARC of Ulster-Greene County and its Blackboard Bistro. ARC participants process and pack the produce so that it is ready for delivery.

In September the group provided rainbow carrot samples to 360 students. Kale was distributed in October and apples in November. RVGA President Matt Igoe sees Farm to School Institute program as an opportunity to further open chances for introducing locally grown food to cafeteria menus. However, he emphasizes the importance of teamwork to bringing farm food into schools.

“Get as many partners as possible and don’t try to do it by yourself,” he says. “Pick one small piece and start as small as you handle. Then you can go from there.”

Fitzpatrick, a hobby farmer herself, adds that getting buy-in from school leaders is key to a farm to school program coordinated by a community agency. She found a champion for the effort inside the school—Ellenville Assistant Superintendent Vince Napoli is championing the project inside the school.

“It connects our students and families to locally grown food, reduces impact on the environment because there are less miles of travel and provides for fresher food,” he says. “You have to be passionate about the undertaking and willing to listen to others outside of the education arena for ideas.”

Eager to foster student’s interest in agriculture, Fitzpatrick plans to launch a series of online gardening workshops. Beginning in late November, kids will have a chance to learn how to grow microgreens, sprout seeds, learn about composting.

“When we wrap up the workshops in April hopefully we can get outside and plant them and continue the learning there,” she says.

-Story by Katie Navarra, photos provided by Dyani Fitzpatrick