ORONO — A new Maine Farm to School Institute for rural middle and high schools will focus on promoting and sourcing local food, and educating students about what they eat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded Jade McNamara, a University of Maine assistant professor of human nutrition, a nearly $225,000 grant to lead the creation of the Maine Farm to School Institute in collaboration with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Maine Farm to School Network, Maine Agriculture in the Classroom, ReTreeUs and the Cumberland County Food Security Council. Over a dozen partnering organizations will support the project, including Falmouth Schools, FoodCorps Maine, Maine Department of Education Child Nutrition, Maine School Garden Network and more.
The institute will train school communities and other stakeholders to establish their own farm to school programs and explore approaches to promote student nutrition education programs, including school gardens and local food sourcing.
Compared to other states in New England, Maine ranks the highest in terms of childhood food insecurity, which was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to McNamara. Farm to school programs have helped schools across the country combat food insecurity and improve nutritional health and education among students. However, many in rural Maine cannot implement their own due to a lack of accessible training, McNamara says.
The nearest farm to school training facility, the Northeast Farm to School Institute, is located in Vermont and has capacity for one Maine school to attend annually. This Maine institute will be based on this successful, evidence-based professional learning model developed by Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day).
McNamara says by serving rural schools across Maine, thousands of students and families who are currently not reached will be impacted by system and program changes that can improve nutritional health and knowledge of agriculture, and build partnerships with rural producers. She hopes the new institute will offer the professional learning, training and support secondary schools need to create their own farm to school initiatives.
“Involving middle and high school students is a unique approach we are using compared to other farm to school institutes,” McNamara says. “By including the students, we aim to prioritize their voice and help them develop farm to school programming that they would be excited about seeing at their school.”
Co-investigators for the project include Viña Lindley, a food systems and 4-H youth development professional with University of Maine Cooperative Extension; Renee Page, a member of the Maine Farm to School Network (MFSN) leadership council; Richard Hodges, founder and program manager for ReTreeUS; and Willie Grenier, executive director of Maine Agriculture in the Classroom (MAITC).
The institute will launch with a three-day workshop in summer 2022 at the Ecology School in Saco. Teams representing six schools will create farm to school action plans and participate in hands-on learning. Workshop sessions will focus on local food procurement, food security, agriculture and nutrition education, diversity, equity and inclusion, school gardens and other pertinent topics.
After completing the workshop, school teams will implement their action plans with technical assistance from Maine Farm to School Network leaders. They also will receive toolkits and funding for their efforts.
Part of the institute also involves teaching middle and high school students how they can implement farm to school-related service-learning opportunities that will broaden their peers’ understanding of food, nutrition and agriculture.
College students trained by McNamara and her colleagues in UMaine Extension and 4-H will host a one-day workshop to mentor middle and school students on facilitating educational activities in their schools, such as building or expanding school gardens, creating a school food pantry or backpack program, or offering fruit and vegetable taste tests to increase food consumption in their schools. They also will help the secondary school students develop social media plans to highlight their programming and provide additional training, including cooking demonstrations, food preservation, gardening and more.
College mentors will continue meeting with middle and high school students to assist them as they implement their service-learning initiatives in their schools.
“College students will gain important soft skills, such as leadership, problem-solving and advocacy, as they implement their classroom learning into community action goals,” McNamara says.
For more information about the institute, contact McNamara at email@example.com.
About the University of Maine:
The University of Maine, founded in Orono in 1865, is the state's land grant, sea grant and space grant university, with a regional campus at the University of Maine at Machias. UMaine is located on Marsh Island in the homeland of the Penobscot Nation. UMaine Machias is located in the homeland of the Passamaquoddy Nation. As Maine's flagship public university, UMaine has a statewide mission of teaching, research and economic development, and community service. UMaine is the state's only public research university and among the most comprehensive higher education institutions in the Northeast. It attracts students from all 50 states and 81 countries. UMaine currently enrolls 11,989 undergraduate and graduate students, and UMaine Machias enrolls 747 undergraduates. Our students have opportunities to participate in groundbreaking research with world-class scholars. UMaine offers more than 100 degree programs through which students can earn master's, doctoral or professional science master's degrees, as well as graduate certificates. UMaine Machias offers 18 degree programs. The university promotes environmental stewardship, with substantial efforts campuswide to conserve energy, recycle and adhere to green building standards in new construction. For more information about UMaine and UMaine Machias, visit umaine.edu and machias.edu.