Friday, November 5, 2021

Students, get your forks ready – WSDA hosts farm to school institutes

Laura Raymond and Annette Slonim
WSDA Farm to School program

As school districts across the state establish farm to school connections, they are buying more and more Washington-grown foods to incorporate into new and growing farm to school meal programs. Successful farm to school efforts are nurturing relationships with local farms and other food producers, transitioning to scratch-cooked foods, successfully introducing new menu items, and much more. It’s an exciting opportunity for farmers and students in our state. 

Salad prep at a pre-pandemic workshop on
Farm to School food preparation.
But launching a farm to school program isn’t easy. It requires creativity, dedication, and new ways of working for cafeterias and districts to source seasonally, develop new recipes, and work with fresh and whole ingredients. 

Transitioning to more scratch cooking is a key component of success and this can be a challenging shift; many school districts don’t have the equipment, staff, or training they need to clean, peel, and chop freshly harvested vegetables or to handle large quantities of fresh dairy, poultry, and meats. 

Sourcing seasonally and locally can mean working with ingredients that are uncommon in the conventional school lunchroom, like whole grains and dried legumes, that are plentiful in Washington. These districts need resources and support.

USDA grant kick starts farm to school institutes

To help school districts get started or strengthen their existing farm to school and scratch-cooking efforts, WSDA was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service to develop a series of Farm to School Institutes. 

These institutes offered presentations that covered topics such as developing relationships with producers, procurement options and requirements, delivery and storage, hiring and training kitchen staff, earning student trust, serving culturally relevant foods, menu planning, and planning promotional events. 

During the three virtual events this summer, teams of school nutrition directors, nutritionists, cooks, board members, educators, and others learned from chefs, WSDA staff, and other school nutrition professionals in Washington who run successful farm to school meal programs. 

Feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive. Members of the teams from the more than 20 districts attending said the presentations provided a goldmine of information, resources, and inspiration.

WSDA held three institutes: one for districts in Western Washington, one for those in Eastern Washington, and one focused on tribal and traditional foods.

A trolley of fresh produce celebrating
Farm to School on Taste Washington Day
The institutes, run by a team composed of WSDA Farm to School staff, culinary professionals, and tribal and traditional foods educators, drew on the knowledge and experiences of school food professionals from programs of different sizes and styles: districts deep in our state’s agricultural regions, big-city school districts, districts serving a handful of schools, and tribes serving students in their communities. All left with an action plan to advance their own farm to school goals. Presenters also came from districts in various stages of farm to school implementation.
Here are just a few of the insights shared by the presenters:
  • The Muckleshoot Cooks Project emphasized the importance of on-the-job training for busy nutrition workers, serving traditional foods weekly, and striving for food sovereignty over time.
  • West Valley School District in Yakima plans meals using a seasonality guide and emphasizes the importance of having a central kitchen to the success of their project.
  • Coupeville School District Connected Food Program uses food from its on-site farm and local farmers. They offer just one hot meal option each day, made in part from foods they prepared in bulk.
  • Seattle Public Schools procures produce from about five local farms for certain meals since no single local farmer can meet the needs of the whole district.
  • Youth leaders from Food Empowerment Education Sustainability Team (FEEST) emphasized the importance of meals that are culturally relevant for students and the value of engaging students in menu development. 
As energized participants apply the skills and knowledge they gained through the Institutes, WSDA anticipates that even more students—in more regions of Washington—will be eating foods from Washington farms and food producers at school.

If you would like to buy food from local farms for your school food program, you can apply for a WSDA Farm to School purchasing grant. Visit or email for more information about the purchase grants.