Farm to School Toolkit Pilot
This Farm to School Toolkit, a resource guide, offers brief descriptions of components of farm to school. It also lists answers to questions commonly asked when tackling this type of program.
The Q&A format offers information on frequently asked questions and considerations when starting a farm to school program. It can also help with exploring additional alternatives to existing programming.
The toolkit includes program suggestions, and links to relevant websites for further information. Its purpose is to be a quick-reference guide and index for schools and partners to build readiness, competence, and understanding of the types of programs that exist for farm to school activities.
Click the tabs below to access each section.
You can also download a PDF copy of each section here:
- Getting Started
- Farm to School Team
- Gardens and Growing Spaces
- Nutrition Education
- Resource Management
A. Creating a Farm to School Team. Before any initial planning, establish a farm to school team to help ensure sustainability of your program.
B. Best Practices.
- Gardens and Growing Spaces: School gardens can come in many shapes and sizes. School gardens can include standard school gardens, greenhouses, and indoor growing spaces.
- Nutrition Education: Schools can provide nutrition education through hands-on learning, classroom activities and recipe development, school gardens, field trips, and the school lunch program. They can also use breakfast and after-school programs where available.
- Procurement: Farm to school procurement is the purchase of local foods to include in the cafeteria or classroom setting. “The procurement of local foods involves identifying food producers, selecting a vendor, and conclusively purchasing and providing food.” (Purdue Extension)
- Resource Management: Resource management, or sustainable food management, typically involves understanding existing food waste within an organization and working to minimize that waste. Options include composting programs, education and awareness about existing waste, and preventing or diverting waste in the future.
- Policy: Schools have many different policies that must be complied with for teachers, students, and staff. Additionally, new regulations for school wellness policies support school nutrition, physical exercise, and overall health.
C. Curriculum. Many different curricula have been developed to help teachers and staff connect farm to school into the classroom. This section provides a matrix for teachers to help them assess which lesson plans may be appropriate for their grade level, incorporating various best practices listed above.
Having the capacity to manage and complete farm to school activities is essential for success. Before initial planning, establish a farm to school team to help ensure sustainability of your program.
Q: Who should be on the farm to school team?
A: You can engage a number of different individuals and organizations in the farm to school team. They can include school food service staff, teachers, administrators, local farmers, students, parents, community organizations, community members, volunteers, Master Gardeners, and more. Be sure to find individuals who are dedicated to the success of the program.
Q: How should the team be structured?
A: Many times, the team will consist of backbone partners (partners that are dedicated to the large goal, but may not have time to interact in day-to-day activities) and partners who will be more hands-on. It is important to identify why people and organizations are involved, and create a collective and agreed-upon goal for the farm to school team.
- Determine monthly meeting times at first, to have constant communication and momentum for team development. As implementation begins, this may ebb and flow based on needs.
- Suggest that team members get involved in activities that are important to them. If the team is large and engaged in many activities, consider breaking the group into small project teams that report back to the larger farm to school team.
- Designate a lead facilitator for the farm to school team, as well as lead project individuals to guide each activity. It may also be helpful to assign a note-taker during each meeting to share notes with the group.
Q: How do we decide what to do first?
A: Creating an agreed-upon mission, vision, and value statements for your team will help determine why you are working together and what you want to accomplish. Consider quick wins and projects that can be done within a relatively short (0-6 month) time frame to show success and keep engagement. If numerous activities are going on at once, be sure to create additional project teams to ensure engagement from all parties.
Planning Toolkit — Intro to Farm to School: Planning and Building a Team (USDA Food and Nutrition Service)
Farm to Child Nutrition Programs Planning Guide (USDA Food and Nutrition Service)
School gardens can come in many shapes and sizes. In this section, school gardens will include standard school gardens, greenhouses, and indoor growing spaces. For purposes of consistent language, we use the following definitions:
- School garden: an outdoor space, typically in ground, used to both grow food and offer education.
- Indoor garden: can vary in use and size, but typically serve as a way to start plants for school gardens and showcase technology advances inside (growing lights, hydroponics systems, etc.).
- Greenhouse or hoop house: meant for season extension, typically a climate controlled glass structure.
Q: What is a school garden?
A: School gardens are typically in-ground exterior spaces that offer an opportunity to learn how food is grown. They offer unique learning opportunities for both students and teachers. Gardening can connect multiple disciplines, including math, science, English, and nutrition.
Gardens can be used to teach children how to sustain themselves, and to care for and respect the earth. School gardens foster growth and knowledge about where food comes from and nourish healthy living habits. School gardens can be incorporated as community garden spaces that are open to the public. This way they can provide inter-generational and cross-cultural learning opportunities.
Typically, school gardens are designed with student input. They create aesthetically pleasing ways to learn about the environment, how to grow food, and create social connections and common ground. School gardens show children that they are a part of something bigger in their community and school system. This pride has the chance to grow in all ages from toddlers to high school students.
Q: How do I design a school garden?
A: School gardens can be designed and implemented in many different ways. A few examples of garden designs are shown below. Consider what classrooms will be utilizing the garden. Is it appropriate to have a theme for the design? Will you engage different grade levels? What techniques are you hoping to share with them? Will all ages be engaged in planting, care, and harvesting?
Design is about both function and aesthetics; start with function in mind. Then think of ways to also make the space visually appealing. Make sure the end result is both helpful for your curriculum or lesson plans and appealing visually. Create a phasing strategy. Consider your three-year plan for expansion or full implementation of your garden. What are the phases you will tackle each year? Who needs to be involved?[read more=”Read More” less=”Read Less”]
Potential components for a growing space may include meeting areas or classroom lesson space, raised bed areas, tables and benches, experimentation areas, tool shed for storage, and a compost pile or bin.
Indoor growing components may include: tiered growing tables, lights, hydroponics, etc. Greenhouse components may include: movable tables, hydroponic or aquaponics technologies, and lighting.
Gardens may have a theme for determining plant selection. A few examples of themed gardens include:
- butterfly or pollinator space,
- showcasing the full ecosystem,
- native plants and heritage,
- salsa, pizza, or salad bowl gardening.
Once your team has determined the theme for the design, consider the best site location. Consider proximity to a water source, classrooms, sun and shade, topography, visibility, etc. When choosing the design for your garden, include staff and students in the process to encourage early engagement and a sense of ownership.
Consider your school and appropriate potential connections to a school garden. It is wise to start small and later add on elements as students, teachers, and community members become more engaged.
Q: Who will maintain the school garden?
A: It is important to identify the maintenance needs of your garden early in the planning process. You’ll want to create a management plan with all participants (teachers, food service staff, grounds keepers, parents, and students). This will help ensure proper upkeep and accountability. You may also need to consider a maintenance plan for the summer and holidays, when staff and students are not regularly in the building.
Consider which community organizations, active school parents, or volunteers may be interested in volunteer hours. Can summer volunteers take home produce for personal consumption? Consider what protocols your school wants to have in place. Additional considerations for your management plan should include:
- Determine school garden lead(s); who has control of the coordination of the garden?
- Build a steering committee of teachers, students, and staff.
- Connect with classroom curriculum where possible.
- Involve the community.
- Be diligent with your phasing strategy for implementation. Check in regularly on progress, and adjust your original plan as needed.
Q: What can easily be grown in a school garden?
A: When considering what plants to grow in your school garden, start small with easy-to-grow crops. Consider the time of year you will start planting. Can you start seeds indoors in a classroom? Schools often start planting in the spring, which only allows about 4-8 weeks of growing time before summer break begins for the students. Is this appropriate for classroom needs? Can you grow early spring crops instead?
Consider crops that can be grown towards the end of the school year in late spring that can be harvested in the fall. Or perhaps hold a planting day during the summer to offer fall crops. Options for spring planting include fast-growing salad greens, main crop varieties harvested when they are still in a baby or immature stage, sprouting seeds or micro greens, buying four-week-old seedling plants, or growing seedlings early in the classroom to get a head start.
Q: How do I engage students in our garden?
A: Engage students in your school garden throughout the whole process. This increases ownership and engagement from students, which is essential when using the garden as a tool for learning. Involve students in the design process (initial designs and planting options); maintenance (upkeep and harvesting); and garden-based lessons and activities.
Q: How do I engage community members in our garden?
A: Community engagement is an important piece to sustaining your garden. Involve the community by in the development of a vision and mission for the garden. Invite community members to sit on a steering committee, planning or management team, or design process meetings.
The more individuals engage from the beginning, the more likely they are to stay fully engaged throughout the process. Offering multiple ways for community members to engage will help build a volunteer base for summer and holiday maintenance of the garden, as well as a sense of ownership and accountability that reaches beyond the school.
Q: Where do I find funding for a school garden?
A: You’ll need funding and resources for continual upkeep and improvement for the garden. Grants are typically available from community organizations, businesses, and foundations. Although grants are competitive, it’s worth talking to a few grant funders in your area to see how your school garden project might fit their mission.
Some state and federal grants can be used for school gardens. Typically these grants involve procurement strategies for local produce, education standards, and community impacts.
Also consider fundraisers that may be dedicated to certain pieces of the garden. Would any local organizations or businesses want to donate products (trees, plants, raised beds, materials, etc.)? This is a great way for organizations to get visibility and give back to their community.
Consider different strategies that fit into your school’s purpose and school garden management plan. Then create a funding strategy to ensure the sustainability of your garden.
From Iowa State University:
Agricultural Urbanism Toolkit (ISU Extension and Outreach, LF 7)
Growing in the Garden: Local Foods and Healthy Living (ISU Extension and Outreach, 4H 905LFHL)
Make Food Safety a Priority in Your School Garden (ISU Extension and Outreach, LF 21)
Elementary School Gardens (food safety) Program (ISU Safe Produce, online training)
From Iowa agencies and organizations:
Engaging Your Entire School in the Garden (Iowa Department of Education)
From other agencies and organizations:
Community and Family Engagement: Principals Share What Works (Coalition for Community Schools)
Farm to School Toolkit (Minneapolis Public Schools)
Funding Farm to School (National Farm to School Network)
Got Dirt? Garden Toolkit for Implementing Youth Gardens (Wisconsin Department of Health Services)
Grant Opportunities for School and Youth Garden Programs (KidsGardening.org)
Minnesota School Garden Toolkit (Minnesota Department of Agriculture)
National School Garden Network (Life Lab)
On-Farm Infrastructure Toolkit (Carolina Farm Stewardship Association)
Pack Shed Design (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service)
School Garden Checklist (Let’s Move)
School Garden Resources (Life Lab)
Nutrition education is “any combination of educational strategies, accompanied by environmental supports, designed to facilitate voluntary adoption of food choices and other food- and nutrition- related behaviors conducive to health and well-being.” (Tisch Center, Columbia University)
Schools can provide nutrition education through hands-on learning, classroom activities and recipe development, school gardens, field trips, and the school lunch program (as well as breakfast and after-school programs where available).
Q: What activities can I do with students to incorporate nutrition education?
A: Children spend much of their time in the school setting. So schools have the opportunity to play a large role in the adoption of healthy living habits. Teachers can present nutrition education in many ways, including through school gardens. Gardens provide a fun, interactive way to teach and learn healthy habits.
Taste-testing, food demonstrations, and samples in the classroom also can encourage nutrition education. Consider using school garden produce or local products for taste-testing. Can you buy your products from a local farmer or community garden?
Q: How can I incorporate taste-testing into my classroom?[read more=”Read More” less=”Read Less”]
A: Taste tests offer students a chance to try new foods without the commitment of making it their lunch line choice. Taste tests also create a special atmosphere to farm to school projects.
For taste-testing in the classroom, consider what type of outcome you want. You can look at the matrix in the Curriculum section to find topics to include. After choosing the curriculum, determine where to procure products (local producer, garden, etc.). Be sure to check with school policies to make sure you are able to bring outside products into the classroom.
Q: How do I partner with my cafeteria to do a nutrition education class?
A: Schools have offered nutrition education during lunch by incorporating a lesson in the classroom, and having them consider their lunch nutrition. You can tie this into a local foods day to understand the nutrition of products that can be grown locally. Invite a local farmer to the classroom or garden to talk about their growing practices, etc. Or take a field trip to visit a local farm.
From Iowa State University:
Activities for Youth Related to Local Foods (ISU Extension and Outreach FFED)
Curricula for Youth Related to Local Foods (ISU Extension and Outreach FFED)
From other agencies and organizations:
Nutrition Education (USDA Food and Nutrition Service)
Nutrition Education Activities (USDA Food and Nutrition Service)
Nutrition Education and Promotion Parent Tip Sheet (Action for Healthy Kids) (Spanish version)
Nutrition to Grow On (California Department of Education)
Taste Tests in the Classroom (Washington State Department of Agriculture)
The Cafeteria Classroom: Food and Nutrition in the Lunchroom (Tisch Food Center, Columbia University)
Youth Engagement: Out of School Time (Alliance for a Healthier Generation)[/read]
Farm to school procurement is the buying of local foods to include in the cafeteria or classroom setting. “The procurement of local foods involves identifying food producers, selecting a vendor, and conclusively purchasing and providing food.” (Purdue Extension)
Q: How much food does your school currently serve?
A: When deciding to procure local foods, consider how much food your school currently serves. How many meals does it serve on average per day? This will give you an idea of how much food you need to order to ensure you are meeting those numbers but not going over.
Q: How much food do I want to procure locally?
A: How you will be using the food? If you want to fill the salad bar in the cafeteria, you will need to grow more than if you are using the produce just to do taste-testing in the classroom. This may change from month to month. But identifying this before making purchases will eliminate shortages or food waste.
Here are examples of purchasing options depending on scale:
- Informal procurement: direct purchases between buyers and producers (small orders).
- Formal procurement: competitive sealed bidding, competitive proposals (mid-size to large orders).
- Micro-purchases or specialty purchases: purchases of less than $3,000 for special events.
Q: How does your school define “local”?[read more=”Read More” less=”Read Less”]
A: There are no hard and fast rules; this definition varies between institutions. Most businesses decide what distance they define “local products” to be. Whether this is a 50-mile radius or a 300-mile radius, it is up to you as a buyer to decide what local means to you, and how you want to source locally produced food. This can impact the variety of products you are available to access, the vendors you work with, and the cost of transportation.
Once your institution has decided on your definition of local, it can be helpful to set a goal for local food purchases. This will help you track your progress internally, and show the impact on both your organization and your local farmers.
A full list of additional considerations for farmers and buyers can be found here.
From Iowa State University:
Checklist for Retail Purchasing of Local Produce (PM 2046A, ISU Extension and Outreach)
Getting Started with Local Foods at Schools (ISU Extension and Outreach)
Getting Started with Local Foods at Your Institution (ISU Extension and Outreach)
A Guide to Sustainable Food Procurement for Retail Foodservices (HS 36, ISU Extension and Outreach)
Iowa MarketMaker (Iowa State University)
Iowa Safe Produce (Iowa State University)
From other agencies and organizations:
A Toolkit for Institutional Purchasers Sourcing Local Food from Distributors (Farm to Institution New England)
Procuring Local Foods (USDA Food and Nutrition Service)
Cafeteria Coaching Toolkit (LF 11, ISU Extension and Outreach)
Farm to School Toolkit (Minneapolis Public Schools)
Food Safety Training (ISU Extension and Outreach)
Institutional Food Purchasing (Michigan Good Food Work Group)
Iowa Farm to School Directory (Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship)
Local School Wellness Policy (USDA Food and Nutrition Service)
Oklahoma Farm to School Produce Calculator (Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry)
Regulations and Licensing – Home Food Operations and Home Bakeries (HS 72, ISU Extension and Outreach)
*Don’t forget, it’s helpful to reach out to your neighbors and ask similar organizations how they are tackling these opportunities.[/read]
Resource management, or sustainable food management, typically involves understanding existing food waste within an organization and working to minimize that waste. Options include composting programs, education and awareness about existing waste, and preventing or diverting waste in the future.
Q: How do I measure food waste?
A: Food waste can be measured by completing a school food waste audit. A food waste audit measures the amount of food being thrown away in the cafeteria. Food waste audits can help to reduce food waste and can be used as an educational tool for students.
Q: How do I measure recycling at my school?
A: Recycling audits measure the amount of trash being thrown away in your school. Recycling audits can help to reduce paper and plastic waste and can be used as an educational tool for students. (Conduct a recycling audit similarly to the school food waste audit, above.)
Q: How do I engage students with resource management projects?
A: Resource management curriculum used in the classroom and the cafeteria is a great way to educate students on reducing environmental waste. Engaging children in waste audits and projects, such as composting, provides hands-on learning opportunities. It also provides a sense of ownership and responsibility in reducing your school’s waste. Check out the curriculum matrix to find relevant available curriculum.
Q: What composting programs exist for schools?
A: School composting programs provide a partial solution to the issue of food waste. Composting provides a way to reduce the amount of waste, and convert it into a product useful for gardening or improving the soil. Composting provides an opportunity to instill a sense of environmental stewardship in students, staff, and the community at large. Many educational programs focus on reducing, reusing, and recycling our solid wastes. Composting fits in with this idea and takes it a step beyond.
Here are two examples of composting programs schools can use:
- Vermicomposting: working with worms.
- School yard composting: outdoor methods and bins that collect school food waste. This can be small-scale where one or two classes contribute food waste, or larger scale where waste from the cafeteria and classrooms is collected for on-site composting.
Composting in Schools: Why Composting? (Cornell University)
Food Waste Reduction in School Meals (Iowa Department of Education)
Iowa Schools Food Waste Minimization Toolkit (Iowa Department of Natural Resources)
School Compost Programs: Pathways to Success (EcoCycle)
The Ultimate School Composting Resource Page (Life Lab)
Vermicomposting for Schools (North Carolina State Extension)
Schools have many different policies that must be complied with for teachers, students, and staff. Additionally, new regulations for school wellness policies support school nutrition, physical exercise, and overall health.
Q: What is a school wellness policy?
A: It’s a written document that guides a district’s efforts to create supportive school nutrition and physical activity environments. Local school wellness policies are used by schools to promote student and staff wellness, prevent and combat childhood obesity, and make sure school nutrition guidelines meet the minimum federal school meal standards.
Q: How do I find out if our school has a wellness policy?
A: A new federal mandate required all schools participating in federally funded school meal programs to comply with federally set guidelines for local school wellness policies by June 30, 2017. Contact your school’s principal or school board to access your school’s wellness policy.
Q: How can farm to school tie in with my school’s wellness policy?
Educators can incorporate farm to school into local school wellness policies in a wide variety of ways. These can include procurement, school curriculum, and additional activities that engage the whole community. Incorporating farm to school curriculum into school wellness policies can benefit students by:
- improving student health behaviors
- willingness to try new foods and healthier options
- consuming more fruits and vegetables, and
- improvement in student engagement and academic achievement.
Introduction to School Wellness Policies (ISU Extension and Outreach)
Local School Wellness Policy (USDA Food and Nutrition Service)
Many different curricula have been developed to help teachers and staff connect with farm to school in the classroom. The matrix below can help you identify appropriate curriculum materials based on topic and grade level.
Curricula for Youth Related to Local Foods (ISU Extension and Outreach)
Educator Resources (KidsGardening.org)
Farm to Childcare Curriculum Package (Institute for Ag and Trade Policy)
Farm to ECE Interest Areas for Young Children (Community Groundworks)
Farm to Preschool Curriculum (Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative)
Farm to Preschool (Growing Minds, Appalachia Sustainable Agriculture Project)
Got Veggies? Youth Garden-Based Nutrition Education Curriculum (Wisconsin Department of Health Services)
How’s It Growing? A How-To Guide for Starting a Farm to Preschool Program (Emily Mehr, master’s student, Green Mountain College)
Iowa Core Lessons: Lesson Plans Pre-K – 12 (Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation)
National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix (National Agriculture in the Classroom)
Teachers Going Green Lesson Plans (Keep Iowa Beautiful)
Prepared by the Cass County Farm to School Coalition of Cass County Food Action Coalition. Primary contributors include: Kate Olson of Cass County Extension and Outreach; Sue Riggs and Jan Steffen of Cass County Farm to School Coalition; David Henrichs of Griswold School District; James Northwick and DeeAnn Schreiner of Atlantic School District; Dominic Giegerich, Haley Wollum and Tami Williamson of CAM School district; Lora Kanning of Cass County Conservation; and Courtney Long, Kaley Hohenshell, and Lynn Heuss of the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Community Food Systems Program.
Thanks to the following content reviewers: Lynn Heuss, Teresa Wiemerslage, and Chelsea Krist of the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach FFED Program.
The Cass County Farm to School Coalition was started in 2016 as a part of the Community Food Systems Program collaborating with Cass County Food Action Coalition. The coalition’s goal has been to create a collaborative network of organizations, school and institutions to work together to develop educational programs with schools around nutrition, agriculture basics and farm to school procurement. Additionally, one of the first collective efforts was to develop a toolkit of resources that highlight the opportunities that exist for schools to begin farm to school programming.
ISU Extension and Outreach Farm, Food and Enterprise Development Program
Farm to Early Care and Education (Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children)
Farm to School (Iowa Healthiest State Initiative)
Farm to School Resources (Farm Aid)
Photos courtesy of Courtney Long and Kate Olson.