From farms to schools: how a new roadmap will transform how we feed California schoolchildren

By Dana Pearlman

I have the good fortune of being a senior facilitator for Ag Innovations. This past year, we partnered with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the Office of the First Partner — Jennifer Siebel Newsom — to facilitate a multisector collaborative that devised a roadmap called “Planting the  Seed: Farm to School Roadmap for Success.” But, what is Farm to School? Also called F2S, it is a movement to source school meals from local and regional farms and educate students about food. 

Now, California is launching the largest Farm to School program in the world. 

In California, over 4 million people are facing hunger — and of them, over 1.2 million are children. The school food system in this ag-rich state serves almost 1 billion meals per year, yet currently, schools spend only a small portion of their budget on locally produced, fresh, healthy foods. 

That is about to change. 

Across the country, school meals have been federally funded since 1946 as a response to increasing child welfare efforts. Historically, California school budgets were not equipped to improve their school meal programs, with antiquated kitchens not set up for scratch cooking, only heat and serve options. Further, schools had to stretch dollars as much as possible, relying on highly-processed, canned options — easy to serve and low cost. Without statewide legislation encouraging better practices, schools did not have the resources needed to improve school meals. Until now….

The proposed investment in Farm to School includes:

  • School kitchen infrastructure and training:
    • $450 million
  • Farm to School:
    • $30 million ($90 million total)
    • 16 regional staff
    • Increased evaluation funding to identify and communicate program impacts 
  • Plus:
    • Agriculture education: $12 million
    • Urban agriculture: $12 million
    • Community food hubs: $15 million
    • Climate Smart Ag
    • School Food Apprenticeships

Dedicated funding is now earmarked for this movement, including universally-free school meals. This is a game-changer for kids experiencing food and nutrition insecurity. This Farm to School movement will increase kids’ access to nutritious, locally grown, scratch-cooked meals, all while supporting local farmers — and so much more!

Many societal challenges intersect with the food and nutrition security issues facing schoolchildren and their families. These include issues like climate change, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and racial inequities. 

The Farm to School movement is so valuable because it serves as a multi-benefit solution to many of these complex systemic issues. Here are some of the important benefits I especially want to highlight: 

  1. Nutritious, healthy, and better tasting food for children: reducing the risk of chronic diseases, increasing well-being, and forming healthy habits early on 
  2. Reduction in fossil fuels and climate impact through locally-sourced foods 
  3. Local economic development: by redirecting funds to local farmers and businesses 
  4. Nutrition and food security: through universally free school meals 
  5. Racial justice and equity: by creating opportunities for people who have been historically excluded to be centered in this movement

Here at Ag Innovations, we work to cultivate the collaboration needed to solve California’s environmental, agricultural, and natural resources challenges. 

5 ways Ag Innovations supported the development of the roadmap:

  • We designed and facilitated a participatory multisector virtual Learning Journey for more than 80 stakeholders over an eight-month period 
  • We leveraged participatory methods, practices, and frameworks that are highly interactive
  • We designed an engaging virtual experience during the heart of the pandemic, cultivating a dedicated network of Farm to School champions
  • We launched a collaboration map on KUMU highlighting the diversity of participants 

As the senior designer and facilitator on the F2S Roadmap for Success, my role was to design a learning program that tapped into the collective wisdom of diverse stakeholders across California. We wanted to showcase the steps needed to stand up a robust vision and roadmap that would serve all of California — leading to one shared vision — including roadmap goals, principles, and policy recommendations. 

The diverse stakeholders that contributed to developing the roadmap come from all across California. Over 200 stakeholders contributed to the development of the roadmap, including ag producers, policy experts — even gardeners, food distributors, and students — because one of our design principles is to include and center the perspectives of those most impacted in creating the solutions.

At Ag Innovations, we support systemic transformation and specialize in facilitating multi-sector collaborations to help diverse groups bring their visions to life — specifically, the most challenging environmental, agricultural, and natural resources issues.

Finally, one of the key success factors of any co-creation methodology is having the right stakeholders in the room. My perspective? Make sure to include: 

  • Those who are directly affected by the issue at hand, in this case students, farmers, and those working within Farm to School
  • Those who have studied and have intellectual knowledge of the issue 
  • Those who make decisions (such as policy makers and leaders) who have the power to implement change 

This new Farm to School Roadmap is one powerful step in the right direction for California schoolchildren and their families, farmers, and us all. 

If you want to learn more about the Farm to School Roadmap for Success, read the report here. Feel free to share it widely — it is truly something to be celebrated!

If you have a vision for a brighter future, let’s talk!