Staff Shortages and a Missing Groundhog Mascot: Overcoming Farm to School Challenges and Coming Out Ahead at CAP Cayuga Seneca

To say the Farm to School team at CAP Cayuga Seneca had experienced a few bumps in the road in 2021-2022 would be putting it lightly. The seven-member team that began as the “Sustainable Seven” in August 2021 had dwindled down in numbers due to job transitions and perpetual staff shortages caused by COVID-19. Even their unofficial mascot, Tuck the Groundhog, who had been a constant source of inspiration (and irritation) in the school garden, was nowhere to be seen and presumably had abandoned ship.

Children at CAP Cayuga-Seneca walk through the school garden

While all the changes confronting CAP Cayuga Seneca were certainly challenging, the central New York nonprofit community action agency had made a pledge to serve their students. With a population of 364 children ranging from infants to 5-year-olds, the program spans across Cayuga County and four school districts, serving both urban and rural populations. All who attend the CAP Cayuga Seneca program are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and the CAP Cayuga Farm to School team was motivated to weave together local food and gardening education in both the cafeteria and the classroom for their students this year.

“Head Start programs are all about open-ended exploration, [including] questioning, wondering, and predicting, so Farm to School activities fit seamlessly into our curriculum and lesson planning,” said Michelle Dutcher, Head Start Coordinator. And luckily, despite all the flux confronting them daily, the remaining team members held fast and weathered the storm. CAP Cayuga Seneca’s deeply rooted commitment to sustainability and Farm to School ensured that the program stayed afloat.

Initial sustainability efforts started in 2017 when Eric Slywiak, former CAP Cayuga Seneca Head Start Coordinator, and Michelle Dutcher, current Head Start Coordinator and Garden Manager, attended a week-long workshop at Shelburne Farms focusing on garden education. “It became a very important part of my work life and  helped my home garden thrive as well. I have been promoting sustainability and teaching children and families to grow their own food since!” recalled Michelle. Since then, the team wanted to find ways to both grow their sustainability programs and connect them to the Farm to School movement. The team, including Michelle Dutcher (Early Head Start Coordinator/Garden Manager), Kasandra Robinson (Health & Nutrition Educator), Kathleen Edersheim (Nutrition Coordinator), Jessica Kiddy (EHS Teacher), and Amanda Ripley (Assistant Teacher), enrolled in FINYS’ 2021 New York Farm to School Institute to help them weave together their Classroom, Cafeteria, and Community components to develop a cohesive Farm to School program. The team met virtually at the Summer Kickoff Retreat in August 2021 to work on their values statement and action plan for the upcoming year and continue to meet monthly with a Farm to School coach to review successes and brainstorm on the challenges ahead. 

In the 2021-2022 year, students in both on-site classrooms and local school districts participated in Farm to School activities. Children at CAP Cayuga Seneca’s largest site have access to around 15 garden beds in three locations. Teachers have agency in deciding what to plant, and work with the kitchen staff to use garden-grown produce in school menus. Despite COVID-19 cafeteria challenges, CAP Cayuga was able to continue Harvest of the Month taste test activities with a new fruit or vegetable every month in the classrooms. Virtual and in-person cooking classes for participating families were a hit. In addition to learning new and healthy recipes using accessible, fresh ingredients, participants were also involved in educational activities such as saving seeds, growing indoor herbs, making seed tape, and learning how to buy local at farmers markets. Finally, the team introduced both classroom recycling bins and reusable flatware and silverware for student meals.

CAP Cayuga Seneca Farm to School Values Statement:

Children and families need interactive, interest driven experiences in order to build connections in their own knowledge of nature-based learning. With cognizance on continual community collaboration and assessing our own needs, CAP Cayuga Seneca’s Farm to School initiative can provide the foundation for current and future generations. By integrating these tenets into our agency’s culture, we aspire to make systemic changes to our local food economy and increase our focus on equity and sustainability in early childhood education.

This spring, CAP Cayuga Seneca was excited to roll out their Spring into New Beginnings event on April 27th, which was the first in-person family event since the start of pandemic. In preparation, the CAP Cayuga Seneca Farm to School team sent home over 300 gardening bags containing vegetable seeds, grass seed, soil, plant cups, and a gardening book for the program’s children and families. Equipped with all the needed materials, the team hoped families would get busy planting during spring break in preparation for Earth Week activities.

For a team saddled with unpredicted obstacles, the CAP Cayuga Seneca Farm to School team has not only made it through the year but managed to thrive. The team’s efforts were successful in reaching the entire CAP Cayuga Seneca community, including students, families, staff, and educators. Michelle mused:

 “Seeing how many teachers and staff participate in a Farm to School activity, no matter how small, is amazing. We have gotten great parent feedback on our Facebook page. There have been several requests for recycle bins, classroom greenhouses and planter boxes. With the changing weather there have been a lot of children out exploring the empty garden beds. I hear teachers talking about what they will plant in the classrooms and how they will bring the plants out and add them to our community garden!”

As an especially auspicious sign, Michelle observed that the school has been blessed with “a brand-new groundhog friend to eat our garden this year.” She and the team are ready, armed with fencing, raised beds, teamwork, and determination, to continue CAP Cayuga Seneca’s Farm to School efforts well into the future.