In 2015, Falmouth Public Schools in Falmouth, Maine, was looking to expand its farm-to-school initiatives.
Not sure how to begin, School Nutrition Director Martha Poliquin applied and was later accepted to be a part of the Northeast Farm to School Institute held in nearby Vermont. The year-long program helped Poliquin and her team formulate a farm-to-school action plan and gave them the resources and guidance needed to bring it to fruition.
“It made, and continues to make, a huge difference in the robust and sustainable program that we have here. I came back from that and told other people, ‘This is amazing,’” says Poliquin. “We shared our experience at a Maine farm-to-school conference that fall, and there were some people saying, ‘Why don't we do this ourselves?’”
Poliquin agreed and spent the next several years working with the Maine Farm to Sea to School Network (MFSSN), as well as many other partners in the state, to form Maine’s first Farm and Sea to School Institute, which accepted its first class of cohorts this school year.
Made possible through the work of numerous partners and four grants, the institute is helping schools in the state kickstart or expand their farm-to-school efforts.
For the 2022-2023 program, prospective participants had to be either middle or high schools due to a service-learning component required by one of its funding grants. Schools also had to form a team of five to six individuals with a specific composition: at least one member representing each school nutrition, administration, faculty and staff, and school community, such as a school nurse.
They also had to fill out an application and describe the current state of their farm-to-school program.
“We have a rubric that we adapted from the Vermont model that is maybe four or five points on a continuum from like, ‘We're really doing nothing, but we're interested,’ all the way to, ‘We have a fully embedded, robust, sustainable program,’” says Poliquin. “So, teams had to sort of go through that rubric and self-identify where they felt they were on that continuum.”
After reviewing all the applications, the institute accepted five school teams from around the state.
Launching with a retreat
The selected teams then kicked things off with a three-day retreat in August, where they attended a variety of workshops and panels. Along with larger general session presentations on topics such as diversity, equity and racial justice in the farm-to-school movement, attendees could also join a variety of breakout sessions depending on which segment they represented.
The team member from school nutrition, for example, could go to a workshop around local procurement practices, while the one representing faculty and staff learned about agriculture in the classroom.
When not participating in sessions, team members worked together to come up with farm-to-school action plans that would serve as the groundwork for the initiatives they would accomplish during the school year, which included everything from taste tests with students to community nights where area residents could come to the cafeteria and try a menu item made with local ingredients.
Also assisting were farm-to-school coaches responsible for cheering the team on and providing them with resources to help make their action plans a reality.
“Think of like coaching any kind of team, or club,” says Poliquin. “The coach's role is to help the players execute the plan.”
MFSSN found coaches “based on interest, experience, and availability,” Poliquin says. Some c had coached a team previously in Vermont or were well known within the farm-to-school community.
Due to the service-learning component required by one of its grants, the institute also had to come up with some type of interactive component for students. They decided to have student ambassadors from the University of Maine (one of the institute’s partners) work with students at each participating school to identify and execute a farm-to-school project that takes place alongside the action plan.
“It might have been: Students want to do a taste testing with their classmates or maybe want to start a particular garden or growing process or something like that,” says Poliquin.
Wrapping up the year
The next event teams will get to attend is a local procurement training put on by Maine’sChild Nutrition Department.
As the school year continues, the teams will also have virtual meeting opportunities facilitated by Poliquin. “They can talk about what they're doing, maybe where they're having a problem, you know, just sort of share ideas and get support from each other,” she says.
They teams will meet for the final time during an online webinar at the end of the school year, where they will talk about their accomplishments and challenges in implementing their action plan.
Once the school year ends, the 2022-2023 institute will officially come to an end, however, Poliquin plans to continue facilitating calls to help the teams to stay in touch and give them a platform to share questions and ideas as they move forward with their farm-to-school efforts.
“Hopefully, part of what comes out of this is they have become more connected to the network, to other resources and organizations, to other service directors, to other classroom teachers and to other community members across the state,” she says.
Next year’s institute
Work has already begun on the 2023-2024 institute.
One addition to the program will be an informational webinar held prior to the applications process that will allow schools to have a better understanding of what applying is like and what participation involves. Two schools that were admitted to the program this year dropped out shortly after being accepted, and Poliquin believes that providing the webinar will help prevent that from recurring.
MFSSN hopes that the institute will become an annual program; however, it relies on funding to keep going. As the institute continues to evolve, the goal is to have an entity such as Maine’s Department of Education or Department of Agriculture make this a permanently funded program.
“Everyone's got limited resources, and there's so many folks out there with great projects that they would like funded, but we can't all compete for the same pots of money,” says Poliquin. “Ultimately, we'd really like to see some other, maybe state organization pick this up as part of the thing that they do every year.”