Ten Tips for Starting a Farm to School Program

By Sunny Young Baker, co-lead Mississippi Farm to School Network

Starting a Farm to School program can seem like a daunting task. Food Service directors, school administrators, and students have enough to manage in their current day-to-day, and adding any extra work needs to come with much consideration and a weighing of valuable time! But farm to school programs are entirely worth it. From improving the health of your students to helping to support your local economy, it’s hard to go wrong when you start to buy local.

Read through the following top ten tips to start a farm to school program to see just how easy it can be to start buying local.

1. Tip one: Find out who else is doing F2S in your town, city, region, and state

By identifying who is implementing farm to school near you, you can learn from the success and roadblocks of these regional programs. Start by connecting with the Mississippi Farm to School Network and the Mississippi Office of Healthy Schools to see who they know is doing farm to school in your area.

Check out the USDA’s Farm to School Census website as well as the National Farm to School Network’s site to check out what help and resources are available to you.

When conducting this research, be sure to consider the following:

• Your districts size. A small district with just a few schools is going to have a very different program than a medium or large sized district. When reaching out to others practicing farm to school, try to connect with districts of a similar size.

• Cost. How much are districts in your area spending on farm to school? Is the cost of local product more than normal purchasing patterns? Has farm to school increased participation? What costs other than food has the district incurred?

• Demographics and Free and Reduced Percentages. Consider how much support your farm to school program will have based on your district’s demographics. In addition, your free and reduced percentage (F&R) will give you clues about how much time and energy you need to spend marketing your program. A district with a very high F&R will have a high, steady participation while a lower F&R will mean you need to convince students to participate and engage families to support the project.

Parent support for farm to school programs is a major key to program success. When parents are involved and share information or volunteer, some of the stress of marketing is relieved from the Food Services director and Farm to School Coordinator. If your district does not have an active parent population, look to area volunteers from your city government or area universities to help fill this role.

Keep the Mississippi Farm to School Network up to date with what’s going on in your district. Send stories, pictures, and share successes.

2. Tip two: Consider hiring a Farm to School Coordinator

Richmond Smith, former food service director of the Oxford School District says this is the most integral piece of their farm to school project, Good Food for Oxford Schools. Hiring a farm to school coordinator is an important step to take to relieve extra work farm to school brings to school district staff. The coordinator can carry out research, connect with local farmers, plan events, market the program, as well as keep the district’s community informed.

Of course, hiring someone to coordinate your project does take extra funds (unless you can find someone to do it for free or for course credit). Consider asking your superintendent and school board to help fund this piece of the project and always include this position in budgets when applying for grants, so long as personnel is an allowable expense.

The USDA Farm to School grants are a wonderful resource for new and growing farm to school programs. Stay up to date on grant deadlines here.

3. Tip three: Look at your current bid sheets and set up a meeting with your produce vendors

It is possible you are already buying local! When the Oxford School District farm to school team sat down with their produce company they discovered they were already receiving local sweet potatoes, blueberries, and tomatoes.

By sitting down and having a conversation about farm to school with your vendors, you are showing your interest in purchasing locally and helping to spark that interest for your vendor as well. After meeting with the vendor in Oxford, they began to receive a second order form each month with all Mississippi grown product. This allowed them to compare cost and seamlessly arrange their Harvest of the Month program each month (see step five).

Make it clear that you are interested in purchasing local product and continue to keep the conversation with your vendors going as seasons change.

4. Tip four: Start conversations with area farmers

In addition to looking into what you are already purchasing locally, it also helps to seek out farmers. Finding farmers is not always easy, but a great place to start is your area farmers markets and local extension agency. Also, do some research to determine if there are any farmer cooperatives or networks in your area, such as the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network. Strike up conversations and perhaps host a informational meet and greet. Invite farmers to have lunch at one of your schools so they can see your kitchens, what you serve, and meet your staff. The more the farmers understand your boundaries and needs, the more likely they will be able to provide what you require.

5. Tip five: View your menu in a new way

Pull out your menus from last school year and look at your recipes to determine where local product would make the most sense. Would it be possible to include local foods in any of your entrees? Would you prefer to feature local foods as side items? When are you already serving local foods and how can you mark this on your monthly calendar (see step seven)?

Calculate how much you are paying for current items versus how much it could cost to incorporate local foods. Often local foods will cost around the same or less than what you are currently spending, but sometimes the cost will be higher. Weigh the benefits of spending more on local foods, and know that farm to school programs typically raise a cafeteria participation by 9.3% (Do Farm-to-School Programs Make a Difference? Findings and Research Needs, Anupama Joshi et al.,).

In Oxford, they found that serving a regular “Harvest of the Month” helped to ensure they frequently highlighted our Farm to School program. Each month they choose one item to serve on the line and market it through their newsletter, posters on cafeteria walls, and on a Facebook page. In the elementary schools, if a student tries the Harvest of the Month, they receive a sticker that reads “I tried Good Food at school today”.

6. Tip six: Consider your ordering system

In order to make the transition to serving local foods easy, consider your ordering system and create a plan that makes sense to all involved.

Gather your leadership team to determine the best way to do this. Will the cafeteria staff or district managers order through the vendor or through the food service director? Will the Food Service director order for the whole district? Will the project coordinator play a role in ordering?

7. Tip seven: Marketing your new meals/side items

Marketing your new meals or side items is an integral step to establishing a successful farm to school program. You want to be sure to market in three stages: Pre-promotion, Day-of, and Follow-Up.

Pre-promotion Marketing. Work with school principals, PTAs, and cafeteria staff to reach out to the entire school community. Create a catchy flyer to post around school with all the important information students, families, and school staff will need (who, what, where, why, and how much). Send the flyer home with families either by email or print. Have your principal make announcements leading up to the special featured menu days and work with teachers to come up with clever ways to get the students excited. One of the school counselors in Oxford offered the classroom with the most participation a lunch date picnic with her the next week!

The above-mentioned pre-promotion activities are geared towards fifth grade and under. For secondary schools, engage students to create their own marketing materials and ideas.

Day-of excitement. Be sure to continue the excitement the day the farm to school meal is served. Consider handing out stickers as a reward for trying the new dish, inviting farmers to join students in the cafeteria that day, and/or gathering feedback of the new via a survey. There are many different ways to celebrate farm to school days. The the Edible Schoolyard’s resources are especially helpful for ideas. Be sure to get on their email list!

Don’t forget to honor your cafeteria staff on farm to school day. Farm to school can often mean more work for your staff, so encouraging students to THANK staff by making thank you notes or simply showing appreciation as they walk through the line – will go a long way.

Follow up. Posting pictures of farm to school features, farms, farmers, and students eating is one great way to follow up with the school and families. Also write up survey results and cute anecdotes from the day for the school’s newsletter or your project’s media outlets.

It is very important to thoroughly market your farm to school program. This step is fun and helpful for participation and awareness.

8. Tip eight: Showing farmers your dedication

Taking some time to consider the life of the average farmer will help you to understand their constraints and abilities. Keeping farmers engaged and aware of your needs will be a cornerstone of your program.

One way to show your dedication to local purchasing could come in the form of a report that shows how much you are buying locally each year. When farmers see the school district as a viable client, they will be more likely to purchase more seed and prepare to fit the needs of the district. Include in the report items you would like to purchase locally in the future as well as how much you currently pay for those items.

Come up with a back up plan for the case of a failed crop or bad weather. Let the farmer know about this plan so all are comfortable with the process.

Gather information for marketing materials from your local farmers. Here, family stories or little bits and pieces of information on the crops become a valuable way to connect your students to farms. Be sure to share these materials with the famers when they are complete.

Showing farmers your dedication means they will be more willing to take risks for you in the future, meaning more local food on your trays!

9. Tip nine: Breaking into the classroom

After all this great work in the cafeteria, touch base with principals to talk about bringing farm to school into the classroom as well. This will help your meal counts by educating students on the importance of eating locally.

There are a number of ways to include farm to school in curriculum such as: school gardens (if they grow it they will eat it!), cooking demos (if they cook it they will eat it!), nutrition lessons, school-wide celebrations such as Food Day or Iron Chef, and more.

Here, again, refer to the Edible Schoolyard website for a plethora of lesson plans and guides.

Some of our favorites:

a. What’s in My Garden and How Does It Grow?

b. Farm to School Questionnaire

c. Carrot Soup And Gremolata

Dependent on the level of interest to teachers and school admin, these lessons can either be run in classrooms by teachers or be hosted by interns from area universities or even parents. This is a great place for the farm to school coordinator to organize activities.

10. Tip ten: Consider next steps

Making a long-term plan for your farm to school project is just as important as making a short term one. Create a year 2, 3, 4, and 5 plan with steps to continue to bring local foods to your students.

In addition to purchasing locally, consider moving towards a scratch-cooked menu, which will allow you to bring in more raw product in the future. More fresh and frozen foods on your menu will make your dishes more nutritious and taste better.

Also look into bringing a salad bar into your cafeteria if you don’t already have one. Salad bars are a great way to highlight local foods and improve school meals by placing fresh fruits and vegetables in front of students daily.

Your farm to school project will work best when it fits the particular needs of your school district. Catering to you school’s community and student group will ensure the success of your program. Don’t take on too much to start and collaborate with partners like universities and businesses to take some of the workload off your project coordinator and food service director. Soon enough, you will reap the benefits of a farm to school program and it will become worth all the hard work! Best of luck!

For more detailed step-by-step instructions on establishing a farm to school program, see the USDA’s farm to school planning toolkit and webinar series.

All content copyright Mississippi Farm to Schools Network 2019