With switch to remote learning, farm to school program struggles to adapt

taste testing for the farm to school program
Kids in Willsboro try beets grown on nearby farms, during a taste-testing event held at their school Jan. 30, 2020. Meghan Dohman of Cornell Cooperative Extension, who runs the Extension’s Farm to School program has had to shift gears with educational outreach during the pandemic. Melissa Hart photo

Cornell Cooperative Extension’s program
shifts gears, expands community reach

By Holly Riddle

Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Farm to School program brings local produce into school cafeterias, teaches children about local agriculture in the classroom and connects students and their families to farmers in the community. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced program managers to broaden their approach. 

Cornell Cooperative Extension began its program in 2019, based off the Adirondack Farm to School initiative originally started in the Saranac Lake School District. Meghan Dohman, Farm to School educator, currently works with 14 districts and 31 schools throughout Essex, Franklin and Clinton countries, connecting them to 10 farms or food producers that sell directly to the schools, as well as participating in schools’ educational activities.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Dohman rushed to adapt the program to fit schools’ new needs, while also ensuring the program’s missions were still being fulfilled.

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“For the food, right off the bat, in March, there was a pretty big drop off in local food purchasing. Since then, I’ve been working with a bunch of schools ,mostly in Essex County, that seems to be where the biggest interest is, to apply for grants to keep purchasing local food,” she said. “They’re able to buy the minimum of local foods — a lot of schools are buying NY State milk and local apples, and this [grant] allows them to buy yogurt, beef and different types of vegetables and diversify their purchasing.”

One of the program’s components is Harvest of the Month, wherein students focus on a different local product each month and then enjoy the opportunity to try the product in a taste test in the cafeteria. While the taste testing took a pause, Dohman adapted lessons for the rest of the spring semester to fit the new remote learning environment. 

Still, even with all of the post-pandemic efforts, Dohman says the in-school programming is only a fraction of what it was pre-pandemic. 

Some educators, though, Dohman notes, are making big strides to ensure students still enjoy the benefits of the Farm to School program. “… A few are getting really creative,” she describes. “In Moriah, there’s a teacher looking into building a sugar shack at the school so they can boil maple syrup with the students on-site.” One middle school teacher likewise secured a grant to install a hydroponics system, and purchased a greenhouse. “So even though I’m not able to be in these schools, we have some awesome teacher-partners who are able to keep this growing, which is exciting, because it shows we’re having a long-lasting impact beyond the lessons I’m doing.”

indoor lettuce farm to school
Sixth grader Isabella Green waters lettuce and other plants in an indoor garden at Willsboro Central School on Jan. 30, 2020. Melissa Hart/Explorer file photo

Expanding its reach

The Farm to School program is now growing its reach beyond schools, however, with the new Farm to Institute effort. The Farm to Institution program, made possible via a USDA grant, will help Cornell Cooperative Extension expand its efforts into institutions such as hospitals, colleges and universities, correctional facilities, senior sites and early child care facilities. 

“We see it as a really big opportunity to help support local farmers and get local food out to a wider audience,” Dohman says. In institutions such as hospitals and correctional facilities, the focus will be primarily “on increasing local food purchasing,” she clarifies. “In other facilities, like early child centers or senior homes, we’ll be doing a little more education and we’ll always offer the same taste test opportunities. There’s been a lot of research that shows that’s one of the most successful ways to introduce new products. We’ll also be working with those facilities if they’re interested in gardens or starting their own growing [programs].”

As Cornell Cooperative Extension looks to kick off the Farm to Institution effort over the course of 2021, it also will be offering wholesale workshops for farmers, for those interested in increasing wholesale capacity or starting wholesaling for the first time. 

To learn more about Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Farm to School and Farm to Institute programs, visit http://essex.cce.cornell.edu/agriculture/farm-to-school

About Holly Riddle

Holly Riddle is a freelance lifestyle and business journalist who also dabbles in ghostwriting and fiction. You can find her work in publications ranging from Golf Magazine to Mashed, Global Traveler to Forbes and Bloomberg. When she’s not writing, you can find her exploring the mountains near her home in the Adirondacks.

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