NPO Collaborations That Work: VT FEED

Successful collaborations amongst nonprofit organizations often lead to very impressive measurable outcomes. CommonGood Vermont has been featuring collaborations from around the state of Vermont and New  England to provide concrete examples on the right way to collaborate. The article below, written by Dana Hudson profiles the Vermont Food Education Every Day  (FEED) program  and ran in the October 30th edition of the Burlington Free Press. VT Feed is a partnership of three Vermont nonprofits: Shelburne Farms, FoodWorks, and NOFA-VT.

I Believe: ‘We have the power to change, improve and reclaim our food systems’

During middle school, I watched my sixth-generation family farm — the place of all my childhood memories — be torn up by bulldozers and developed with large homes for commuters to Washington, D.C.

When it happened, it changed more than my family’s livelihood. I watched it eat away at my family’s morale and happiness, and I watched the culture of the people and place change. I watched the food money in our community move toward the large supermarket chains from out of state. I witnessed birds, insects, wildlife, healthy soil, corn and pasture give way to ornamental yard plants, drainage culverts, driveways and pools.

After my family spent six generations on the homestead, every one of my siblings and cousins moved away and spread out from California to Vermont.

Eight years ago, having first become a defender of the environment. I decided to channel my still-angry emotions toward something productive and closer to my heart: I started working with schools regarding food education and their connections to local farms. At the time, I hoped I would be successful at the job. Little did I realize the profound impact it would have on me and my perspective of life and our society.

It wasn’t a new idea, linking kids to food through farm and nutrition education. But I was working on an intentional project to help students know what food is and where it comes from, while at the same time working with school cafeterias to get more local food into their meal programs.

As part of Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day), a partnership project between three Vermont nonprofits, I set up meetings between farmers and food service, helped teachers use food as a teaching tool in their classrooms, and worked with community members to plan harvest dinners and build gardens. This all laid the foundation of what later was coined Farm to School, and we were seeing profound successes far beyond our expectations.

Through Farm to School and the growing movement of rebuilding our local food systems, I have seen children, parents, teachers and even school administrators change their personal eating behaviors, choosing local, fresh and healthy food over highly processed, salt-laden foods with which they had been familiar.

I have seen school attendance and student behaviors improve on days when food and farming were in the curriculum — and on the menu.

I have seen communities pass their school budgets after years of dissent, claiming their food efforts brought something so positive to their community that they resolved local concerns.

I have seen farmers agree to sell to schools, thinking it was just a good community gesture, only later realizing that working with school cafeterias opened up a whole new economic market, including hospitals, colleges, prisons and even the students parents, who become loyal customers at their children’s insistence.

I have seen small food entrepreneurs working with farmers and schools to develop value-added products that combine commodity ingredients with local products to create food items that a school cafeteria can afford while still expanding their business.

I have seen large food-management companies and distributors change their corporate practices: decreasing miles and fuel consumption in trucking, changing how they prepare food, even adopting sustainability principles throughout their businesses as a result of the demand for local and sustainable practices.

I have seen our federal government which once said Farm to School … What? dedicate a cross-departmental team within the U.S. Department of Agriculture to focus on how to support this movement.

I have seen school food-service directors and farmers testify before Congress about the impact of Farm to School programs, and, as of 2009, 25 states now have state-level Farm to School legislation.

Clearly, Farm to School matters. Our food choices matter.

Individually and collectively we have the power to change, improve and reclaim our food systems. Farm to School shows us that this not only strengthens our health but also our local economy, our environment and our communities. That is a lot of responsibility when you are standing at the store trying to decide between whole local blueberries or artificially flavored blueberry Popsicles.

Now, to show the impact Farm to School work is having beyond schools and farms, I work with regional planners and land trusts, farm service providers, health-care insurance foundations, state and federal legislators, independent food-service providers and large food-service management companies, food distributors of all sizes, Vermont government, the USDA, the Defense Department, teachers and professors, and still with the kids who are making all this work worth it.

When I was a child on my family farm, my grandmother told me repeatedly, You are what you eat, which I always considered in respect to my own health and wellbeing. But my food is linked not only to my daily energy to function, but to my family, my traditions and culture, our shared landscape and all aspects of our functioning society, including our democracy, our economy, our health care and our societal welfare.

This work has personally brought me full circle, where I am fighting professionally as much for the redemption of my grandfathers culture as I am for my grandchildren’s future.

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