It’s always encouraging to get good news delivered to my inbox, especially when it involves strengthening our food system through feeding and teaching the next generation. This week’s news was certainly worth celebrating. According to a USDA News Release, 2021 boasts the highest number of Farm-to-School grantees ever awarded in a single year!
WASHINGTON, July 15, 2021 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investing $12 million in Farm to School Grants this year, announcing awards to 176 grantees, the most projects funded since the program began in 2013. The department is also releasing new data demonstrating the recent growth of farm to school efforts nationwide. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of school districts and/or local entities responsible for school meals participated in farm to school activities during school year 2018-2019, more than half (57%) of which began within the past three years.USDA News Release
Having recently concluded a two-year Farm-to-School-funded implementation project with the Napa County Office of Education (NCOE), I appreciate the commitment of every organization that submitted a proposal, especially on the heels of this pandemic year! It takes tremendous effort to prepare a successful proposal (they are no joke!). If you’re considering a Farm-to-School grant, I have a few tips to offer.
Start early, meet often, check-in regularly. Our Farm-to-School grant journey started about 18 months ahead of the proposal deadline. Thinking back, we may have started six months ahead, but quickly realized that it would take us much longer to develop a solid concept. After many discussions about goals and priorities, we landed on Garden-Enhanced Nutrition Education, a research-based approach to coupling nutrition concepts with hands-on gardening and edible activities. I had previous experience with GENE, there were many curricular materials available, and the concept was generalizable to different contexts and scalable to multiple sites.
Create systems for managing the process. Always read the Request for Applications (RFA) thoroughly and get to now all the necessary steps ahead of time. It helps to set a timeline so no critical actions get lost. Do you need to register in the federal award management system? Do you know your DUNS? If you don’t know what these things mean, reread the RFA to identify all the required details and documents. Build in some wiggle room for when delays occur. Aim to finish ahead of schedule and have an external set of eyes edit the proposal for you.
Establish a working relationship with all key partners (and predict where things might diverge). Although the grant applicant and administrator was the NCOE, they provide services at multiple sites spanning several school districts. Getting buy-in from all of the stakeholders was important to ensure that the grant would be successful (if awarded). It’s important to involve all partners from the very beginning to reveal any unforeseen challenges and be prepared to engage in problem solving when they do arise.
Be clear about roles and responsibilities. As a small nonprofit, I did not have the administrative or organizational capacity to take on a Farm-to-School grant application, so my role was to contribute to the concept, submit a budget, and write letter of support. I donated my expertise in-kind as a community partner, but when the grant was funded, I was well-positioned to implement the project as a subcontractor. There were two upsides to this approach. First, the grant proposal was more coherent because it had collaborators with different perspectives. Also, it saves time finding a contractor who is a fit to project (if that expertise does not exist within your organization). This type of arrangement has worked well for an organization of my size, but it would not work for every organization. Because there was no formal agreement, this situation only works in a well-established relationship where all stakeholders trust their partners’ professional intent.
I’m proud to have had the chance to work with the NCOE to establish an after-school wellness track centered on school gardens.The project included high-quality curriculum, professional development for staff, student-grown produce, and family outreach. Of course, we had to make some adjustments due to Covid-19, but we managed to lay the foundation for sustaining a program at three sites: Calistoga Joint Unified School District, Taylor Mountain Elementary School, and Camille Creek Community School.
Our overall approach was modeled after Garden-Enhanced Nutrition Education (GENE), which I first learned how to implement GENE in 2013 when UC Davis ASI partnered with Life Lab to offer a “train the trainer” model. Funded by a California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA) Specialty-Crop Block Grant in 2013, I was provided with the tools and strategies to share with local educators. I also received $500 mini-grant to purchase equipment to replicate the workshops in a local context. I didn’t realize at the time that I was also learning to grow a program to scale.
I include this anecdote to suggest that it’s important to know when it’s the right time to consider a Farm-to-School grant. It’s never fun to receive a rejection (I’ve received plenty!). If a federal grant seems too daunting, then chances are it is! For any grant you consider, know in advance what kind of feedback or support you’ll receive if your proposal isn’t successful. Local, regional, and state grants are an excellent starting point for testing approaches and building organizational capacity.
I suspect that this year’s USDA funding programs will trend in the direction of even greater Farm-to-School support, so consider thinking about your program or approach now for a 2022 submission (check here for a fall announcement).