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Farm to School Summit Inspires Healthy Food in Northampton Schools

On Saturday April 6, over 50 Northampton teachers, parents, residents, local leaders and legislators spent the morning talking about how to strengthen the connections between the city’s schools and healthy local food, farms, and gardens. Held at the Northampton Community Arts Trust, the summit was organized by Grow Food Northampton, School Sprouts Educational Gardens, Food Service Director Mistelle Hannah, and School Committee member Rebecca Busansky. Its goal was to share information about current successes and challenges with the many existing programs, gather input from many stakeholders, and begin to create a unified vision for building an integrated set of “Farm to School” experiences for students.

In addition to the organizers, Superintendent John Provost, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, and Sen. Jo Comerford presented and participated. Attendees, including many teachers, School Committee members Howard Moore and Laura Fallon, and City Counselor Gina-Louise Sciarra, worked to answer prompts. These addressed topics including how to best create partnerships and connections, what would be the best ways to integrate Farm to School efforts into school curricula, how to increase school lunch participation, and how to bring more of this work into the middle school and high school. The space was alive with conversation and ideas.  

The program began with the crowd sharing their own memories about farming or growing food which included a mother sharing a story about her son’s first experience with harvesting and joyfully eating cherry tomatoes in the Jackson Street School’s garden.

Superintendent John Provost greeted the crowd with his own personal connection to farming through work on farms as a teenager and how it built a strong work ethic. Provost made clear his commitment to connecting kids to local food before introducing the Legislative Panel of  MA Sen. Jo Comerford and MA Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa. Rep. Jim McGovern had been scheduled to attend but had to cancel at the last minute.

Farm Field Trip to the Giving Garden

Sen. Comerford talked of transformative experiences on farm field trips to Crimson and Clover Farm as a Jackson Street School parent chaperone and her former position at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts as catalysts for her support for strong food systems. Comerford cited that 22 percent of people in her Hampshire/Franklin/Worcester Senate district are food-insecure and said she hopes to help decrease this through her work as Senate chair of the Joint Public Health Committee, appointment to the Commonwealth Food Systems Commission, and as co-chair of the Food Systems Caucus. Sen. Comerford emphasized the connection between food security and public health and shared her gratitude for the work being done in and support from the Northampton Schools and the Northampton Education Foundation. She told the crowd, “I have a mandate to do the kind of food security deep dive in terms of what it’s going to take from state funding and to go directly at the issues that we’re raising today around connecting our kids and families to good food and the experience of growing food for all of the reasons that we know are valuable.” 

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa shared some memories of food being a joyful experience in her life, from walking home past an apple orchard on the way home from school in Westfield and enjoying a free apple each day, to living in Italy and hearing about the wholesome family-style food school lunches that her daughter was served. Rep. Sabadosa talked of her work at the statehouse on the Food Systems Caucus. She is interested in looking at limitations in the school cafeterias and how to overcome them by providing adequate funding.

Rep. Sabadosa said, “People are getting excited about food at the statehouse”

Rep. Sabadosa stated that she is furthering the statehouse’s enthusiasm with a schedule of Farm Tours in the coming months. Sabadosa cited the Healthy Incentives Program as a high priority for her and advocated for more funding and added incentives for low-income families. 

The legislators responded to a robust round of questions from the group which included questions about legislation to support soil health and funding for schools to do more Farm to School work.

Hope Guardenier, School Sprouts Founder said, “We’re so grateful to have our legislators at the table and these awesome questions and comments out in the crowd. We clearly have a powerhouse in the audience here.”

Before breaking out into groups to discuss ideas for the future, the group received an overview of what is happening in the schools currently. Northampton Food Service Director Mistelle Hannah explained budget constraints and challenges around funding for labor, equipment and training needed to prepare homemade recipes as well as the time needed to prepare more wholesome meals. Hannah spoke of her goal to increase local food procurement each year and the promising statistic that last year .04 percent of food purchased by Food Services was local and so far this year that amount is 12 percent. Rep. Sabadosa said, “Mistelle puts together the healthiest and most amazing things she can, on budget. A budget where she will say ‘This cost 70 cents!’”

Hope Guardenier and the bumper crop of lemon cucumbers

Hope Guardenier, School Sprouts Founder, shared her experience of managing Northampton school gardens for 10 years and the great news that School Sprouts is now funded by the school’s budget. Guardenier shared an example of Mistelle’s willingness to go the extra mile to include local food in the school’s cafeteria. Last fall the school garden had a bumper crop of lemon cucumbers. After harvesting 150 pounds of cucumbers, she made a call to Hannah, who jumped into action preparing the cucumbers herself to serve to the students.

Lisa Damon, Co-Director of Mass Farm to School, gave the crowd an overview of the organization’s statewide work in the schools. Most notable has been the Harvest of the Month program which is an opportunity for Massachusetts schools to celebrate local abundance and experiment with new foods and recipes. Northampton schools have implemented Harvest of the Month successfully this school year.

Michael Skillicorn, Director of Programs at Grow Food Northampton shared an overview of what the organization’s Grow Food Kids program is doing in Northampton elementary schools. Grow Food Kids offers no-cost farm field trips and classroom workshops throughout the school year. This fall 22 Northampton classes enjoyed a tour of Crimson and Clover Farm. This winter students in all four city elementary schools have participated in nearly 150 classroom workshops and now field trips are being planned for the Spring to Grow Food Northampton’s Giving Garden.

After participants responded to the prompts in small facilitated groups, organizers identified top themes. All participants then received five stickers with which to indicate their personal priorities. This input will form the starting point for additional planning efforts. Clear themes emerging from the event included expanding food and farm programming for older students, and supporting Food Services to increase participation in school meals. Organizers promised participants that they will receive a summary of the input received and opportunities to engage in follow-up in the near future.

The program concluded with a delicious local lunch provided by Hillside Pizza. The first Northampton Farm to School Summit was sponsored by Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Smith College, Bridge Street School PTO, Jackson Street PTO, JFK Middle School PTO and Northampton High School PTO. In addition, River Valley Coop provided complimentary gift cards for Northampton teachers who attended the Summit.

Lindsay Sabadosa, Jo Comerford
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