Bridging the Gap Between Rural Farms and School Nutrition: Maine Kicks Off First Farm and Sea to School Institute

The Maine Department of Education served alongside many state-wide partners in organizing Maine’s first Farm and Sea to School Institute which launched last month bringing together teams from 3 different school districts at the Ecology School in Saco.

The event is the kick-off of a year-long opportunity in which the 3 districts will develop a values-based, school-wide farm & sea to school action plan that integrates curriculum, local food sourcing, youth voice, equity and inclusion, and family and community connections, all unique to their school community. The 3 districts participating in the first institute are MSAD 17 (Oxford Hills), RSU 22 (Hampden), and RSU 89 (Katahdin). They applied for the opportunity in January 2022.

The institute was hosted as a collaborative effort among farm to school practitioners, advocates, and supporters throughout Maine who are all part of Maine’s Farm and Sea to School Network (MFSN).

The 3 teams are comprised of school nutrition staff, educators, and students who will be working to co-develop and implement agriculture, gardening, and/or nutrition related programming at their school. The student members on each team are UMaine college mentors trained in youth leadership via 4H STEM Ambassador Program – this component of the Institute is to both incorporate student voice and provide an extended learning opportunity for Maine students.

The 3-day kick-off event was a chance for the teams to come together for the first time and start planning, have the opportunity to meet the other teams, and begin work with state-wide partners and coaches. They participated in a wide array of activities including learning about planting specific crops that are easy to grow without maintenance. Given that schools are typically out of session during prime garden-growing season, this option allows for a “set it and forget it” style of growing vegetables.

Richard Hodges from ReTreeUS, a nonprofit that plants orchards and provides education and resources to schools specifically, showcases seed packets with pumpkin, Mexican sunflower, and popping corn seeds, among others, which he explained will help school staff grow enough food to be used in school cafeterias without a lot of maintenance. Hodges also showed participants how to plant a peach tree during his workshop and tour of the gardens.

Other workshops included learning about Incorporating Local Agriculture into Classroom Curricula, Building Sustainability through the district budget, finding local foods, how to promote school efforts, food security, and an institute-wide workshop with Racial Equity & Justice Organization, among many other workshops. The three-day event also provided lodging, locally sourced meals, and plenty of team time for participants to engage in conversation and work together to begin their action plans, all while enjoying the serene Ecology School campus.

Following the kick-off event, the districts teams will continue to engage in workshops designed around school specific roles throughout the year and continue work with an experienced coach from the Maine Farm to School Network to develop their school-wide farm & sea to school action plan.

Funded by a USDA Service-Learning Grant, the MFSN group is working to secure funding for future Institutes. Read more about it here. Pending more funding, the Farm and Sea to School Institute expects to open applications for year-two of the institute in January 2023. Read more about the application and selection process here.