National Farm to School Network (NFSN)
May 2021 Impact Assessment II
Completed by Lacy Stephens, National Farm to School Network
Compared to pre-COVID normal, are there dimensions of your sector that have experienced a sustained increase or reduction in activity? What aspects of Pandemic disruptions or adaptations were temporary, and which appear to be longer lasting? Do any appear to be permanent?
Overall, many farm to school stakeholders report increased and deepened connections across a growing farm to school network. Farm to school stakeholders, particularly those agencies and organizations acting as intermediaries connecting producers and aggregators to school food and other wholesale and retail outlets, were forced to shift attention to a greater focus on food security and advocacy efforts. In doing so, they developed stronger community connections and expanded relationships outside of traditional farm to school stakeholders. Farm to school practitioners and stakeholders also increased communications and activity across networks. Stakeholders report relying heavily on peer learning, accessing networks of partners across the country to learn quickly about innovation and creative responses from across the country.
Most schools across the country report dramatically decreased participation in school meal programs over the last year. Reduced participation in meal programs means reduced reimbursement for schools. This, in combination with the extra cost associated with adapting meal service programs, has left many school nutrition departments with a critical financial deficit. Anecdotally, some districts have reported increased participation amid COVID-19, a shift program leaders attribute to being able to offer universal free meals to all students.
As school nutrition programs continued to shift service models to keep up with constantly changing education models (in-person vs. virtual vs. hybrid) and refocused on meeting immediate needs for children and families, prioritization of local food purchasing decreased in many communities. Service protocols and models made it difficult to utilize local, minimally processed foods and school shifted to more pre-packaged foods and meals. When schools were closed, farm to school stakeholders report being unable to pursue new connections across the value chain and unable to execute programs and initiatives aimed at increasing local food.
A handful of school districts have reported increased purchasing and serving of local food amid the crisis. Programs able to maintain or increase local purchasing credit strong relationships with producers and creativity in how they were offering local product to children and families. One school food service director shared, “We also served a lot of bulk and ‘whole’ local produce that I have never served before. Items like whole watermelon, honeydew and cantaloupe were a favorite as well as pints of heirloom cherry tomatoes and 3lb bags of red potatoes and carrots.”
Producer support organizations report an increase in producers exploring new market pathways, especially those who had previously relied on wholesale markets. Producers sought more direct to consumer sales which offered higher price points for many producers. There was also a major shift to e-commerce platforms. State agencies and non-profits were important partners in creating, coordinating, and promoting these platforms and supporting producers in utilizing them. For producers able to continue sales to schools, they report increased demand and sales of products that require limited preparation or could be served whole, like hand-fruit, cherry tomatoes, carrots, and snap peas.
Organizations providing nutrition and food education and gardening education have been challenged to shift educational opportunities on-line and overcome ongoing restrictions in access to school sites, decreasing consistency of and access to food, nutrition, and agriculture education to many children. Some organizations are reporting increased participation and interest from educators in professional development opportunities, especially those related to equity. Producer support organizations have also halted in-person training opportunities and are working to figure out how to reach producers and provide training in a virtual format.
Food systems non-profits have reported decreased funding due to lost earned revenue, program sponsorships (especially for organizations that have in person training and events) and reduced funding opportunities for non-emergency focused food work. State agencies report budget freezes, limiting capacity to restart or continue farm to school work.
Changes and shifts that stakeholders anticipate to be temporary include modified meal service approaches (e.g., grab and go meals) and inconsistent and uncertain school schedules. Stakeholders hope that as these challenges resolve, in person education and school support and increased local purchasing will also return.
Longer lasting challenges include budget deficits and funding challenges for school districts and support organizations. Some stakeholders anticipate small and medium producers may maintain a focus on the more profitable direct to consumer sales, leaving a potential gap in local/regional serving wholesale producers. Stakeholders anticipate the focus on food security and schools as an important pathway to address family food access will continue as communities slowly recover from the economic crisis and repercussions. Some stakeholders expressed concern that the COVID crisis has set back local purchasing and the farm to school movement in a long term and potentially more permanent way.
There are a few COVID prompted shifts that stakeholders are hopeful will be more permanent. Stakeholders hope the elevation of the importance of school nutrition programs in community resilience and the economic opportunities for producers (the “economic engine of farm to school for economic recovery” as one stakeholder put it) will continue. Along with this, stakeholders are hopeful that the general interest in local and community-based food systems will continue and parlay into changes in school food service. The emphasis and prioritization in racial justice and addressing inequities in the food system and in food access will certainly continue. Overwhelmingly, stakeholders would like to see universal meals to continue for all children.
What types of innovations, pivots, or adaptations have proven to be the most impactful or important for your stakeholders or sector?
Create leveraging of USDA meal program waivers has been a vital adaptation and spurred extensive innovation. Being able to provide all children school meals regardless of income allowed schools to meet children and family’s needs without adding additional administrative burden for families or schools. Many schools became central access points for food, utilizing school kitchen and transportation infrastructure to increase food access for families. Partnerships across food access organizations and local food systems stakeholders elevated opportunities for families to access fresh, whole foods in addition to packaged, shelf stable products traditionally included in emergency food packages. Examples of school-based innovation and partnerships include:
State agencies leveraged existing local food incentive policies to maintain support for local food procurement for schools, even as it became more challenging for schools to prioritize local purchasing. Another important innovation from state agencies was there use of federal emergency funds, particularly the CARES Act funding to support farm to school and local foods infrastructure. Iowa’s Local Produce and Protein Grant Program (https://iowaagriculture.gov/news/cares-act-local-produce-protein-grant-recipients) awarded schools, child care, and universities funding for equipment to support local purchasing and direct funding for purchase of local foods. The grant program also had an award for producers to enhance their infrastructure and capacity for farm to school sales. Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Rapid Response Grants for schools (https://www.mda.state.mn.us/f2srapidresponseschools) offered competitive funding for schools to “begin, diversify, or increase purchases directly from Minnesota producers or from Minnesota producers via distributors and food hubs.” The associated grant for food vendors (https://www.mda.state.mn.us/f2srapidresponsevendors) offered funding for agricultural producers and other food vendors to increase capacity to sell to Minnesota schools.
Given the innovations and adaptations you’ve seen, how would you say your stakeholders and/or your sector demonstrate resilience in during the pandemic?
Farm to school stakeholders, and the sector in general, demonstrated resilience by doubling down on relationships and partnerships, both at the local level and across the national network of partners. Farm to school stakeholders prioritized listening to and being directly responsive to the needs of families and producers within their community. For many organizations, this meant shifting activities and lenses to best meet the needs of the community. Many shifted to address the emergency situation and ensure that children and families had access to food and producers could access markets. But as they did this, they also maintained an eye on systems level impacts and building sustainable relationships and infrastructures. One farm to school stakeholder shared their approach to resilience amid the pandemic: “Connecting the system to itself at many points, building redundancy in a system, diversity of network relationships. Empowering stakeholders at all levels and focusing action through shared goals and values.”
What data did your sector find most useful in navigating pandemic disruptions? Please share any survey findings, sales data, or other data/metrics related work that you, your partners or stakeholders conducted during the pandemic.
Farm to school stakeholders relied heavily on free and reduced price meal data to prioritize reach and programming, including determining sites and locations for meal service and delivery. However, stakeholders acknowledge that for most districts, this data does not reflect the dramatic increase in food insecurity faced by many families amid the pandemic. Stakeholders also created and relied upon mapping of food access point for families, like this one from the Arkansas Department of Agriculture (https://arkansasgrown.org/arkansas-grown/map/?category=arkansas-grown&sort=latest).
Other relevant data from the field includes:
- COVID-19 Impacts on the Child and Adult Care Food Program
- IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON School Nutrition Programs: Part 2
Are there groups or sub-sections of your sector that are currently experiencing disproportionate negative impacts from pandemic-disruptions? Are there groups or sub-sectors that face disproportionate challenges in recovering or re-establishing operations as pandemic-disruptions dissipate?
Schools that serve high percentages of children of color and are located in communities that have been historically disinvested in experienced greater challenges in being able to pivot service models and provide access points for meal service. Districts without sufficient financial reserves were not able to bolster staffing and invest in new equipment and packaging as readily and will have a greater challenge recovering financially. Students of color have had more limited access to meals throughout the pandemic disruptions, highlighting system inequities in meal programs and access (https://civileats.com/2021/01/26/did-pandemic-disruptions-to-school-meal-programs-leave-out-students-of-color/). School food professionals, many of whom are women of color, have continued to be taxed and put at risk to do their jobs. As the media spotlight on school nutrition professionals fades, the importance of their work does not diminish. However, the structures of school nutrition programs reenforce low wages and under employment for school nutrition employees.
Additionally, small and medium producers/food businesses and producers of color have been largely excluded from aid and federal contracts.
How have questions of equity, access, diversity and inclusion shaped your sector in the past year, and what efforts (if any) are in place moving forward? Please provide as many specific examples as you are able.
The call for universal meals has expanded and grown louder as pandemic disruptions have continued and the long-term economic consequences for families is becoming clear. To inform and craft a universal meals program that is rooted in equity and creates potential for systemic food system shifts, the National Farm to School Network has brought forth a Values-Aligned Universal Meals (http://www.farmtoschool.org/documents/ValuesAlignedUniversalMeals_Overview.pdf) platform that get us closer to a just, equitable food system that promotes the health of all school children and benefits producers, workers, educators, and their communities.
Additionally, with acknowledgement of the historic inequities in farm to school initiatives and access, the National Farm to School Network has put forth a Call to Action (http://www.farmtoschool.org/calltoaction) to our cross sector stakeholders and partners in order to work towards more just and equitable food systems. NFSN’s call to action is, “By 2025, 100% of Communities Will Hold Power in a Racially Just Food System.” To achieve this goal, NFSN is working in partnership with our network of stakeholders to shift power in communities through farm to school initiatives and expand our network of partners to work on this goal with a broader network of diverse organizational partners.
Throughout the pandemic, the importance of community driven initiatives in meeting the unique needs and uplifting the unique assets of each individual community has been repeatedly underscored. Examples of these community driven initiatives and champions can be found here: Community Food Champions.
Looking to the 2021 season, what issues are top of mind for your stakeholders or your sector? Are there areas where cross-sector technical assistance (e.g. choosing the right online platform, partnering with emergency food agencies) would be timely for your sector?
Collaborative policy efforts to support equitable school food and food system development, including:
- Universal school meals with a value-added layer to ensure equitable implementation and support of BIPOC producers
- Reform and expansion of programs like USDA Pilot Project for Unprocessed Fruits & Vegetables or other ways to use USDA Foods entitlement funds for local purchases
- Investments in school food, including increased meal reimbursement and increased funding for equipment and staff
- Investments in food systems infrastructure (including small/medium processors and aggregators), particularly in communities of color
- Increased financial support and facilitation of land access for producers of color
Technical assistance needs for school nutrition program stakeholders:
- Working with food aggregators and diversifying procurement streams
- Beginning or returning to scratch cooking and utilizing local, minimally processed products, including:
- Finding ways to offer a diversity of fruits and vegetables outside of salad bars (as salad bars may not be coming back for a while
- Creative approaches to providing whole, local foods to families (family food boxes, grocery bag program, etc.)
- Continuing to address food security needs of families while making long term investments in local/regional food infrastructure through local purchasing and partnerships.
Centering equity and food justice in school meal programs and farm to school approaches.