In celebration of Farm to School Month, we wanted to help answer some common questions school district’s have about the program. Farm to School Network has become such an empowering program for kids across America and we wanted to help share some tips on how to get your Farm to School Program growing–no pun intended. We sat down with Julie Raway, who has been a dietitian for the past 10 years for Broome Tioga BOCES in New York, to get insight about the program. She has also recently become the Farm to School Chair for the NY SNA Association!

Health-e Pro: How did your District get started?

Julie Raway: 11 districts participate in NY Thursday, the local Farm to School Program. NY Thursday is one day out of every month where the lunch menu is using New York State food. NY Thursdays often feature new recipes that students have taste tested and provided feedback before making it onto the menu.

Over the past year, NY Thursdays have been happening monthly. However, it started as a much smaller project. The program initially started by using a few local items here and there. For example, a school district started using apples from an apple producer nearby. FUN FACT: New York is the #2 apple producer in the United States!

When the program initially began, it started serving students a single local product, but was able to expand into a full local menu over the years!

Taking it to the next level comes in time. A simple example is your school serving apples from a local farmer. This could further expand to using apples in parfaits such as creating a Baked Cinnamon Apple Parfait or using apples in a salad such as a Harvest Apple Kale Salad.

How do School Districts find out who to contact? Where do they start?

Some school districts wonder if there are organizations willing to get a hold of farmers wanting to do this and the answer is yes!

Here are two tips for connecting with the right person: If you have a farmer nearby, call the farmer or connect with an extension that can help. Start small by buying a single product, like apples for a few schools.

The other tip is there are resources out there for you. Extension offices are in almost every state. These extension offices act as a community partner and help with support and resources. They have agriculture and nutrition educators, who want to get involved with schools and that is their passion.

When looking for community partners, a mutual vision and shared goals are always key in making your Farm to School Program successful.

Look at what it is in your community; sometimes all it takes is a phone call.

Can anyone help build our Farm to School Program?

Farm to School is a lot of work, especially for the busy food service professional. I highly suggest reaching out to community partners. Food and Health Network is someone we are working with and have hired a farm to school coordinator who has been key with building our program. They make it very easy to connect with farmers. A lot of work is needed so that is why having partnerships is key because it is their priority and, as a school food service director, you have a lot of other things going on and may need help getting everything coordinated, such as the bidding of the farmer’s products.

Community partners provide support and resources. Farm to School is a priority for them, so they have more dedication to the program.

What is a fun way to get students involved in the Farm to School Program?

It is very common in Farm to School programs to offer taste tests to students. We implement two taste tests a month, rotating schools. One of our partners, Food and Health Network, looks at what is in season and helps develop recipes for students to try. In collaboration, we make sample size portions and set up a table in a cafeteria with a voting board and a sticker ranking system. The successes end up on menu. We even encourage staff to taste test and offer their opinions! A few examples of recipes we have tested in the past were harvest apple kale salad  and apple-cinnamon baked sweet potatoes.

We also have the opportunity to invite farmers to the school and teach students about where their food comes from or even the best way to pick an apple off of a tree! It is fun to see the students get involved.

How did you get connected with community partners?

When looking for community partners, it should be a natural partnership with the same vision. Try to align with organizations with the same goal. In this case, using more local products.

Every state has a core partner that can help them get connected with other partners.

Click here to see who is the core partner for your state.

Like mentioned above, I am the core partner for the state of New York. One school district reached out to me and I was able to connect that district with other agencies across the state and give suggestions of possible partners. Extensions and Food Hubs are both popular examples of partnerships, but you can even think outside the box! For this school district, I found a culinary school for them to partner with and culinary schools would be a great partnership because you could incorporate cooking demos and taste tests into your Farm to School Program!

As the program grows, more opportunities will come right to you to help expand even further. In a simple example, a community partner with us, Food and Health Network, created signage and logos for NY Thursdays. Grant funding from USDA and NY State and Ag Markets helped promote our Farm to School Program as well.

How do you promote the program?

Along with the help of multiple community partners, we are able to help spread the word. Next Tuesday we are having a taste test for one of our new products, baked cinnamon apple parfait, and we invited a New York senator, so the press is coming to taste test and showcase it. Usually elected officials are very supportive of Farm to School Programs because it is good for community and economy and kids. When the program initially begun, we also sent out press releases. Never underestimate using social media like Facebook to spread the word around. We have a Facebook page, Rock on Cafe, to which we post all of our updates and keep everyone involved.

What is your most important piece of advice for districts who want to start a Farm to School Program?

It always helps to have partnerships on your side so that you can expand the reach of the program to the people in the community. When people find out we serve an all-local menu, they LOVE that. Just remember: nothing is too big because more people are willing to help than you think!