Schools Redefine Success in a Pandemic During the New York Farm to School Institute

The global coronavirus pandemic upset the apple cart of nearly every facet of life. For some kids, the disruption to school cafeteria meals meant losing their only link to local farm-fresh products. Neither schools nor farmers let COVID-19 ruin the fruits of their labor in collaborating on connecting students with farm products.

Edison Elementary staff pose with take-home garden kits

“This was definitely a year for redefining what a farm to school program can be and what makes a farm to school program successful,” said Ashlea Raemer, New York State Program Assistant at American Farmland Trust.

The 10 schools selected to participate in the 2020 – 2021 New York Farm to School Institute, hosted by American Farmland Trust’s Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) initiative, were up for the challenge. Bolstered by the Institute’s support and resources, school teams forged their way through an unprecedented year, and still were able to offer farm to school programming despite of a global pandemic.

East End Farm to School Project reflected that the Institute “helped keep us accountable and inspired during a very difficult year. We made some significant improvements to our Harvest of the Month program that were inspired by other teams in the Institute, including adding a Farmer of the Month feature and incorporating a link for an online activity. We also recorded virtual farm tours and posted them to our new YouTube channel. The Institute also provided us with a shared vocabulary and starting point for incorporating DEIJ work into our Farm to School activities.”

In the Hudson Valley, the Ellenville Central School program introduced a “Just a Bite” taste-testing program. Typically, community partners visited schools and presented about different types of food. The events featured bite-size taste tests. COVID restrictions made that model impossible. Instead of canceling the events, they packed samples individually and labeled the food with a QR code. Scanning the QR code led to a YouTube video of the demonstration they would typically do in person.

Ellenville School District said that the Institute “provided opportunity for collaboration and knowledge acquisition. As part of the institute, our team has been able to learn skills and tricks that others have found to assist in efficient programming.”

Farm to School NYC’s team was also able to stay the course despite rocky pandemic waters this year. “[The Institute] allowed us to have a framework for meaningful conversations with all levels of the organization. It also kept this as a priority in the organization amidst changing administrations and service. We are committed to making more meaningful connections to local food so students can experience the benefits both while learning and during meal service,” NYC Farm to School continued, “We received excellent support and care for all our Farm to School Institute members. The AFT program has inspired us to take actions to bring new and exciting ideas to our Farm to School program that probably would have languished had it not been for the attention and inspiration this program brought to us.  You gave us the inspiration and we did the work. That is the definition of a great team in action!”

“Food Service directors, cafeteria managers, and other food service staff played a critical role in feeding the community during the crisis. At the same time, they were managing a wide variety of strategies to feed kids who were studying both in-person and remote," said Mikaela Perry, the Farm to Institution New York State Training Coordinator for American Farmland Trust. "Many schools chose to focus on the classroom and community portions of their action plans and moved any cafeteria initiatives under the “long-term goals” section of their action plan.”

Focusing on small, achievable goals allowed teams to feel successful and gain momentum in manageable increments. The schools that saw some serious success this year were the teams that met together no matter what else was going on and those who showed up to cohort networking events, according to Perry.

“It was surprising that most school teams thought they weren’t doing “enough” farm-to-school activities,” she said. “In reality they were actively finding ways to deliver farm-fresh products throughout the ever-evolving situation. I was a cheerleader as much as a coach and adopted the mantra, “any movement forward is still movement.”

FINYS staff and consultants provide extensive coaching and strategic development to participants throughout the year-long program. The school district teams also interact with peers at other New York schools that represent varying geographic locations, cultural backgrounds, and sizes. The network shares ideas, insights and lessons learned to help one another develop sustainable farm-to-school programs.

“The pandemic shifted the feel of coaching quite a bit. I never got to meet any of the school teams I worked with, nor did I get to visit their schools, meet their students, or step into their communities,” said Perry. “My focus as a coach had to shift from simply helping teams to develop goals and action plans to facilitating more team-building exercises, checking in on the wellbeing of school staff, and helping schools to brainstorm alternative programming and solutions.”

In Spring 2021, FINYS partnered with Poughkeepsie Farm Project, or PFP, to offer farm to school learning and development opportunities for Institute participants. “For Poughkeepsie Farm Project, professional development usually consists of sharing food and experiencing the land together at the farm, said Kathryn B, PFP Farm to School Manager. “But the pandemic did open a new opportunity to connect with educators around the state and country to share the work we are doing with garden-based education, multicultural literature, and farm to school resources. We created new virtual self-care restorative circles, aimed at bringing educators together, which centered on wisdom from nature and Indigenous peoples that can support us in our personal lives and classrooms."

FINYS leaders and coaches will kick off the 2021 – 2022 program with a two-day virtual retreat in August. School teams meet bi-monthly and receive coaching and peer networking for the year. If all goes as planned, an in-person celebratory gathering will recognize participant accomplishments in the spring of 2022.

“Every Farm to School program is an opportunity to create something unique for a school’s students, communities, and environment,” Perry said. “Their Farm to School program is a blank canvas, and their school team is the artist.”

-Story by Katie Navarra