Farm-to-School Programs: Exploring New Horizons In Ag Education

Farm-to-School programs have grown more meaningful as the local food movement has taken hold. Explore new horizons in agriculture education.

Farm-to-School programs have grown more meaningful as the local food movement has taken hold. Over the past 20 years, every educational program from pre-schools to post-graduate programs have incorporated some component of the farm-to-school philosophy into their school’s mission. From planting a school garden and harvesting the bounty for the cafeteria, to procuring local apples, efforts often have focused simply on re-establishing that missing connection between field and table.

lady busy in the field

Farming as curriculum

Walter Biddle Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences, established in 1943, predates the farm-to-school movement. It’s a specialized educational opportunity for Philadelphia high school students, run by the city’s school system, and serves over 500 students from all of the city’s ZIP codes. The 130-acre campus features a working dairy herd as well as swine, sheep, poultry and horses. There is a nursery, field crops, pastures and more, all of which play a hands-on role in the educational curriculum.

W.B. Saul is “a fully comprehensive school,” said G. David Ruvarac, an agriscience teacher and representative. “The only elective we offer is agriculture. It is all very hands-on.”

students at agriculture school

The school’s mission is to prepare Philadelphia school students for agricultural careers and offer them opportunities normally unavailable to urban youth. “So few of them actually know about the full components of agriculture.”

The school has four primary study areas: agricultural and food products processing; animal science; applied horticulture; and natural resources management and policy. As freshmen, students rotate through all four agricultural disciplines, with one period of agriculture a day. Then, they declare a major in one agricultural study area. Each year, the amount of time spent in the agricultural elective curriculum increases.

Students work in the school’s greenhouses and orchards; grow organic vegetables; raise meat animals – which after being sent out for slaughter, they then learn to butcher; work with reptiles and amphibians; learn about hydro and aquaponics; build hardscaping projects and learn landscape design; and oversee an active composting operation, which sells finished product to the community. They complete annual projects at the Philadelphia Zoo, the Philadelphia Flower Show, the PA Farm Show and for the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, connecting students to the community and its organizations.

students in the field

Although it isn’t known exactly what ag-related jobs graduates eventually pursue, 90 percent of the students graduate from the program, and 80 percent continue on to college. Of those in college, 50 percent are agricultural majors, over 30 percent focus on the sciences and the remainder on law and politics.

Other high schools across the nation have embraced an agricultural focus, including those with working farms. Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Massachusetts, which boasts 500 acres of land with livestock and agricultural mechanics programs, and the Forrest County Agricultural High School in Mississippi, offering both livestock and horticulture facilities, are two examples.

These programs are well established, but newer programs, even those in traditional high schools, are going beyond the standard introduction to agriculture courses as farming becomes trendy again.

student taking a nap

University farms

You don’t have to go to a traditional agriculture-based college to see student farmers at work. Colleges and universities around the country are growing food for their own use, as well as to sell to students and faculty. Participating students are learning where food comes from and how to grow it. But they aren’t necessarily studying agriculture.

It isn’t surprising to find farming happening at Cornell University. After all, this land-grant university is renowned for its agricultural research and curriculum. But you might be surprised to find the Dilmun Hill Student Farm, where sustainable farming has provided food for thought for the past two decades.

dilmun hill holding organic vegetables

“Dilmun Hill is an organic, student-run farm that seeks to foster community and empower students through active engagement in ecological agriculture,” said Samantha Hackett, wholesale production manager. “Dilmun Hill is open to anyone and is a place for experiential learning, group collaboration, research and outreach.”

The 12-acre Dilmun Hill Student Farm grows food that is sold to students, faculty and staff via a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. They also sell wholesale to some campus eateries.

Crop management is planned by five student managers, each responsible for a different aspect of the farm’s production – wholesale fields, CSA fields, high tunnels – who work in conjunction with a professor. The farm does make a profit, but that’s not the main goal.

greenhouse - crops

The CSA operates with volunteers, bringing students onto the farm via work parties. Students can also purchase CSA shares or attend farm-based tours, events and other programs. Student researchers are also welcomed on the farm. In exchange for weekly work hours, research projects appropriate to a small, sustainably managed farm can be granted approval.

“Many students that do participate in work parties that have an educational background or interest in agriculture think that it is important to have this opportunity for experiential learning,” Hackett said. “Others in non-ag majors come, too, and are enthusiastic to learn about farming. But we wouldn’t say that they come so that they can go into farming as their career. We hope that they come because Dilmun creates a genuine community for those interested in farming, sustainability, food systems and social justice.”

At Hampshire College, the organic farm dates back to the 1970s. But its focus has changed, from sheep-based research to today’s local food system emphasis. Work at the Hampshire Farm is done by work-study students, overseen by professional farmers.

organic vegetables

“Vegetable and grass-based meat production” are now the emphasis, with the goal of providing food to the college community via a CSA program, said Nancy Hanson, director of farm programs. “We are a production farm. We do have production goals. We are big enough that we really need to have professional farmers working with the students.”

All students have access to the farm, not only via the purchase of CSA shares, but through learning activities on the farm. Art students, for example, often use the farm for projects. Students in entomology classes come to the farm to study the insects. And student projects, such as breeding pigs, are often allowed on the farm and, if successful, may become an ongoing part of production. The farm provides a lesson in food system studies, social justice and more.


“The farm gives them a real, tangible example” of what they are learning in the classroom, no matter whether it is an ag-focused course or not, Hanson said. “Having the farm right here, the students can actually see it and have an understanding of at least a small part of food production and a greater respect for the people growing our food. We’re teaching eaters. They can touch the food system.”

The campus dining service purchases about 75 of the 200 vegetable shares. The farm gears itself toward fall production, when campus eating is in full swing. Stored root crops and winter salad greens are also emphasized.

pigs drinking water

“We’ve adjusted our crop scheduling, and we’ve adjusted what we’re growing,” in order to meet the needs of the dining services, Hanson said. “The growing season doesn’t match the eating season on campus.”

Bon Appetit Management Company is the outside service provider for campus dining halls. According to representative Andrew Fleischer, they procure 27 percent of their produce from Hampshire Farm. Future plans call for increasing the ability of the dining service to process and store crops, leading to even more consumption from the student farm.

Aside from the seasonality issue, insurance requirements of the management company has been an obstacle in sourcing food locally. The college’s insurance policies can cover the student farm, but the burden on local, small farmers wishing to sell to the university can be a major impediment to farm-to-school sales. Some innovative programs lowering the insurance needs for small producers have been put into place.

Pricing, too, is often a concern, Hanson said. Meeting in the middle, so that local growers don’t have to beat the artificially low prices of California lettuce, for example, is needed.

Compromises on both ends can work this out, and not all local food has to be cheaper than that of large-scale industrial growers for farm-to-school procurement work.

“Find middle ground,” Hanson urged. “Flexibility on both ends” can bring balance to the economic aspects of food purchasing and make farm-to-school a reality.

students in the snow

School dining hall: Real food challenge

The emphasis on finding common ground to promote changes in food procurement practices is one familiar to those involved in the Real Food Challenge (RFC). Student eaters are in control of the RFC, a 10-year-old campaign to increase real food procurement on college campuses. The RFC incorporates a broad range of components involved in food production, from cultivation to worker rights.

A nationwide network of student activists helps to actualize the campaign’s mission “to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local or community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources – what we call “real food” – by 2020,” as per the website.

students at work

The Real Food Standards 2.0, – revised with input from students, industry experts, producers and food system scholars – defines various levels of local, fair, humane, and ecologically sound practices. The goal is to provide universities with the knowledge and the tools to enhance the procurement of food that rates high according to the program’s standards, while avoiding food that does not.

Elizabeth Wilkes, a student leader with RFC, reached out to a variety of students on the RFC’s Communications Team, who provided a collaborative response to questions about the program’s goals and impact.

students with animals

“Signatory schools are committed to sourcing at least 20 percent Real Food by 2020, meaning local farmers are guaranteed a chunk of that percentage. How strong the connection between farms and universities varies on a case-by-case basis, but every school chooses to purchase from some local farms,” RFC’s Communication Team representatives said. “Each commitment means access to markets they (local farmers) have otherwise been completely shut out of.”

Tools such as the Real Food Calculator allow students to audit purchases and identify means of shifting university food purchases toward the campaign’s goals. The University of Vermont (UVM) successfully met its Real Food Pledge after only three years of efforts and is now purchasing not only apples locally, but also other staple products.

student holding a flower

Efforts of Sodexo, the UVM campus dining service vendor, along with the student activists, have resulted in 100 percent of the eggs, milk, maple syrup and tofu coming from local sources. And, 100 percent of some other foods – such as coffee and bananas – meet approved RFC standards, too.

The student role in RFC goes beyond wanting to eat local, fair-trade, ecologically sound food. Their voice is needed to break through corporate barriers and turn the tables in favor of nonindustrial food sources.

“Students are the ultimate clients to which both university administration and food service must cater, making their voice much more powerful and impactful than internal advocates may or may not be,” the RFC Communications Team said.

students working in the bushes

“Beyond just pushing for good food options, students are also in a position to call out bogus corporate practices that are a part of the perpetuation of the mess we’re in, and don’t have the risk of losing their job.”

Students also educate others about the food system, using tools such as the Real Food Wheel to illustrate the interconnectedness of social, economic, environmental and cultural aspects of food production, and how the choices made by eaters do matter.

Izuma, a RFC student activist at the University of Washington, emphasizes the power of food systems education not only as a means for making individual changes in eating, but to make those systemic changes.

student raking the field

“When education fuels changes at an institutional level, economies, environments and communities are completely transformed.”

With over three dozen schools, from the University of California-Santa Cruz to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, pledging to procure Real Food, and many other institutions of higher learning utilizing tools such as the Real Food Calculator to help make procurement decisions, the RFC is impacting higher education from coast to coast.

“This means that I am bringing food and agriculture into campus and community discussion, with the understanding that food system problems are inseparable from pressing social and political issues and should be considered simultaneously,” Wilkes said. “I’d say student activism is essential to meeting the goals of the Real Food Challenge: it has been a core driving force.”


Today, a wide range of farm-to-school efforts take a variety of encompassing shapes. From farming-based educational experiences to university food programs, sourcing local food – as well as bringing the real labor of farming onto the campus – has become more than a novel idea.

It’s now a new way of approaching not only the school lunch, but school educational programming. Farm-to-School has grown up.

Photos Courtesy of Brookford, Dilmun Hill CSA, Hampshire College, Praireth CSA and WB Sauls