Training the Next Generation of Farm to School Educators

The farm to school movement is thriving. Across the country, teachers, parents, volunteers, and dietitians are teaching children where their food comes from and how to connect with agriculture and healthy eating.

Here in Western North Carolina, ASAP’s Growing Minds @ University program offers training for future educators and dietitians who want to integrate local food and farm to school programming into their careers.

This partnership between ASAP’s Growing Minds Farm to School program and the dietetic internship programs at Western Carolina University, Lenoir-Rhyne University, Appalachian State University, and the Early Childhood Education program at Blue Ridge Community College grew out of ASAP’s existing farm to school connections and resources.

“We’d been doing farm to school and farm to preschool for years, and what we were doing is relying on teachers in the classroom or school nutrition staff to come on board with us and do this work,” says Emily Jackson, director and founder of ASAP’s Growing Minds program.

“Then we decided, wouldn’t it be nice if we embedded this idea and this notion into the pre-service training or the training for future teachers and future dietitians? If we embedded farm to school and local food activities into that training, then we’d be graduating people who have this mindset and hopefully this desire to integrate this into their future professional practice,” she says.

Many of these future educators are dietetic interns who are training to work in a variety of settings. After graduation, they might work in a health department or food bank, or direct food services in a hospital or school cafeteria. They also might do hands-on work with children, which is an ideal place to put farm to school training into practice.

As part of Growing Minds @ University, interns who are based in school cafeterias learn how to conduct local food taste tests with young children. They’re also provided with resources like “I tried local…” stickers to spark the interest of the kids and recipe cards so students can continue the learning at home.

Some interns practice writing grant proposals to fund a farm field trip or an edible garden. Others research culturally specific foods in a local area, find local farmers who provide these foods, and create relevant resources for clients.

Since the program was founded in 2009, hundreds of students majoring in nutrition and education have volunteered their time and furthered their education through the Growing Minds @ University program.

The program is poised for expansion as more colleges and universities in North Carolina learn about it. After a recent presentation for community colleges across the state, 21 additional community colleges agreed to incorporate Growing Minds @ University into their early childhood programs. Now ASAP will be working to support those community college programs so that they can be successful.

“We’ve had this in our minds that we wanted to work with the community colleges and a lot of those students are online. So we knew that a chunk of the resources that we created for this purpose needed to be in video form. We’ve created a video for each of the four components of farm to school – which are edible gardens, cooking with children, farm field trips or farmer visits – and the local food procurement served in meals and snacks,” she says.

When graduates look back on their experiences, they talk about how children and adults responded to the programming. They discovered that most children were willing to try any local food and that adults “enjoyed eating foods that are grown close to them.”

ASAP spoke with several interns who want to incorporate local food into their careers. They say that no matter where they work as dietitians, they see local food having a “huge impact” on the people they work with. Local food “transcends generations,” they say, and whether they decide to work in pediatrics or geriatrics, they want to include local food programming in their work.

As these future educators completed their training, they had a direct impact on the community. During the 2018-2019 school year, dietetic interns provided local food experiences to over 3,000 people, including hundreds of children who gained a better understanding of local farms and nutritious food.

“The more we can help children hear this message in different contexts, the more successful we’re going to be in connecting the three c’s – the classroom, the cafeteria, and the community,” she says.

Farm to school lesson plans for all ages are available to educators and community members online. Find these resources and ways to participate in the Growing Minds @ University program at

Aired: January 20, 2020

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