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Meet the coalition working to get more locally grown food in N.C. schools

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  • From school gardens to nutrition lessons to using local foods in school meals, here's how the Farm to School Coalition of North Carolina is working to strengthen and expand initiatives statewide. @infoCEFS @FarmtoSchool
  • In North Carolina, more than 2,000 schools participate in farm-to-school activities. The Farm to School Coalition of N.C. works to increase that number. @infoCEFS @FarmtoSchool

This is the first article in a three-part series on farm-to-school efforts in North Carolina. The second article features Halifax County Schools. The third article features Working Landscapes.

In Halifax County Schools, a district-owned farm grows fresh fruits and vegetables that are integrated into school meals. In Asheville City Schools, cooking and gardening classes connect to standards in subjects like math, reading, and science. And in Guilford County, a network of school gardens provide living laboratories where students learn by observing and doing.

These examples reflect three core activities — procurement of locally grown food, nutrition and local food education, and school gardens — that are collectively known as farm to school. The 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to School Census found that roughly 65% of school food authorities (SFAs) nationwide were participating in farm-to-school activities. In North Carolina, just over 2,000 schools participate, and since 2011, a coalition has been working to increase that number.

A coalition forms

Since 2007, Tessa Thraves has worked with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a partnership of N.C. State University, N.C. A&T University, and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. One of her first projects with CEFS was a statewide farm-to-fork initiative that produced a guide to sustainable, local food systems, and farm to school was one of the key areas the report highlighted.

Following the report, a group of stakeholders from state agencies and nonprofits, collectively known as the Farm to School Coalition of North Carolina, came together to discuss propelling efforts in North Carolina. Planning meetings in 2012 identified existing areas of success in farm-to-school programming, including procurement strategies, hands-on learning, and curriculum development. Realizing there was no single network to connect individuals, agencies, and organizations trying to solve similar problems or identify best practices, the coalition applied for grant funding.

In 2013, it received a Farm to School Grant from the USDA to build partnerships, develop a strategic plan, and expand programming. The group held six listening sessions across the state, named a steering committee, and has been working to strengthen and expand farm-to-school initiatives across the state ever since.

Although the coalition is entirely volunteer-run, Thraves serves on the steering committee and supports its work as farm to school coordinator for CEFS. Kirsten Blackburn, farm to school outreach coordinator for CEFS, also dedicates a large portion of her work to supporting the coalition.

The coalition’s approach

“Everything we do is collaborative,” said Thraves, noting that the coalition works to create partnerships and reduce duplication among existing stakeholders.

At the state level, the procurement-focused NC Farm to School program is run by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and nutrition education is offered by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and the N.C. State Extension. Another goal of the coalition is to bring together nonprofits that are dedicated to farm to school, including FoodCorps and the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP). Over the years, the group has also added more local representatives, such as local school nutrition directors.

Because farm-to-school efforts are inherently place-based, Thraves said efforts can often lack cohesion. The coalition works to create synergy for farm-to-school efforts by building a space where the collective picture is understood and where resources, supports, and expertise can be shared.

All the research makes clear that if you’re doing all the components of farm to school, it impacts kids the most,” said Thraves. “And most places can do one or two little pieces, so we’re really always trying to figure out: What’s the next piece you can do to fill out that picture to make the biggest impact?”

The benefits of farm to school

The National Farm to School Network has identified five key benefits of farm-to-school programming based on research, each listed below with an example. For the full list of benefits, click here to read this brief.

  • Economic development: Each dollar invested in farm to school stimulates an additional $0.60-$2.16 of local economic activity.
  • Public health: Students experience improved health behaviors, including choosing healthier options at school and consuming more and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Education: Students increase their knowledge of science and STEM concepts and have increased school engagement and positive attitudes toward school and learning.
  • Environment: Food waste is reduced and there is a reduction in transportation-related environmental impacts since food is transported shorter distances.
  • Equity and community engagement: Farm to school creates positive linkages between schools and communities, particularly in low-income and communities of color.

Getting locally grown foods into schools

One of the core farm-to-school elements is the procurement of locally grown foods. The coalition is currently focused on new pathways to increase procurement of local food in schools, particularly for smaller farmers and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) farmers.

One of the most common hurdles Blackburn sees to local procurement are Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) certification requirements. In North Carolina, farmers who want to sell their products to schools must have a GAP certification, which involves a voluntary audit to verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored to minimize food safety risks. The certification process can be time-intensive and expensive — farmers may need to purchase new equipment, and the average cost of a GAP audit in North Carolina is roughly $1,000. Now, the coalition is working on ways to simplify the GAP certification process and make it more appealing.

“Schools are going to be always be buying food,” said Blackburn. “So it’s just he perfect opportunity for farmers to be able to provide their produce there, because there’s always going to be a market for it.”

The coalition is also looking at the role that food hubs play in increasing procurement of local food in schools. Food hubs are facilities that manage the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally produced foods. By coordinating these activities, they add value to the supply chain and provide wider access to markets for smaller farmers. For example, a single food hub might purchase sweet potatoes from multiple small farmers, wash, chop, and bag the sweet potatoes so they are ready-to-cook, and then fulfill a large order from a local school district that no one small farm would have been able to fulfill on their own.

“There’s so many farmers in North Carolina that would like to be accessing schools as markets that can’t because of all the complexities,” said Thraves. “And so we’re constantly looking for more pathways.”


Another core element of farm to school is education, which can include instruction related to healthy eating, school gardening, local agriculture, and more. Many nonprofits in North Carolina partner with schools to offer instruction that incorporates these topics into the classroom. For example, ASAP’s Growing Minds program has developed farm-to-school activities that incorporate state and national curriculum for every grade from preschool through high school.

Blackburn said it is important to ensure both teachers and faculty are bought into incorporating farm to school in the classroom. It can be easier for teachers to integrate farm-to-school concepts smoothly into lesson plans when processes are simplified and resources exist. The coalition aggregates resources, including those focused on education, and shares curriculum resources through its weekly newsletter.

DPI also leads the North Carolina Jr. Chef Competition, which allows students to connect lessons learned in the classroom to hands-on application. Students first submit recipes for a school lunch entree that meets nutritional requirements for school meals and uses local ingredients. Then, finalist teams participate in a cook-off where they prepare, cook, and plate their recipe for judges.

School gardens

School gardens, the final core element of farm to school, are one of Blackburn’s favorite parts because has seen how they can garner a support from parents, faculty and staff, and the broader community. School gardens look different in every community, ranging from paper cups in a windowsill to a full-fledged greenhouse or farm. These gardens seek to provide engaging spaces for students to deepen their understanding of local foods and engage in hands-on, experiential learning.

“It’s about connecting the dots so that kids are growing and learning about what they’re chopping up and playing with in their own classrooms with cooking and then seeing it again on their plate,” said Thraves.

In Cherokee Central Schools, a single school garden is used by the elementary, middle, and high schools.

“They’re all touching the same dirt and growing the same plants and doing that in ways that connect to local culture and culturally-centered education,” said Thraves. “It’s just really special.”

Many farm-to-school curriculums are also linked to school gardens, such as the North Carolina 4-H Garden-based Curriculum and the Junior Master Gardener program. Financing for school gardens ranges, but Thraves said many are given in-kind to schools through donations and volunteer efforts from teachers, parents, and community members.

For Thraves, two of the biggest benefits of school gardens are the role they play in increasing food sovereignty by teaching students how to produce their own food and how visible they are.

“When you can see a garden at a school site, there’s a touch point to what’s happening in the way kids are learning and growing and thinking,” she said.

Looking ahead

COVID-19 exacerbated many challenges facing school nutrition departments, from staffing shortages to supply chain disruptions. While these challenges can make it harder to advance farm-to-school efforts, Blackburn said this moment can also be an opportunity to strengthen partnerships through collaboration.

“What are ways we can support them [schools] better so that they can advance what they want out of their farm-to-school programs?” she said. “I just believe farm to school itself is a huge and incredible opportunity for communities.”

Looking ahead, Thraves is thinking about the ways farm-to-school efforts can introduce concepts like food sovereignty, place-based orientation, student-centered thinking, and health and wellness into the school environment. She sees opportunities for schools to undergo cultural shifts that prioritize the environment and people, including how to value food and the people who produce it.

“Farm to school embodies the values that we believe in, that we think students ought to be surrounded and engulfed in during these formative learning years,” she said, adding: “We’re really hopeful.”

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.