For a non-profit to collaborate with other non-profits on a project is not uncommon in Vermont, given that we have an abundance of non-profits. However, to collaborate for eighteen years on a project—not typical!
Since its inception in 1971, NOFA-VT has served as an educator of consumers about healthy food and has advocated for changes which sustain the local food system. Beginning in 1994, NOFA-VT experimented with school food initiatives, based on organic farmer interest: conducting a pilot food purchasing project at three schools in 1996, and holding a “Vermont Farm to School Forum” in 1998 with a focus on strategies for increasing local purchasing by public schools. <!–more–>We were expert at connecting our family farms — organic and aspiring to be organic — with their communities, especially around food. What we were not expert at yet, but were passionate about, was connecting to schools so that local food could be served to school children. We realized we needed to partner with other established food and farm organizations that were working with schools — Food Works and Shelburne Farms. Thus, the statewide, collaborative farm to school project was created in 2000. The mission of Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED), is to raise awareness about healthy food, good nutrition and the role that Vermont farms and farmers play in our communities.
How is it possible to collaborate for so many years? Why didn’t our organizations finish the project and move on? As the landscape of school food issues was changing, it became apparent that our Vermont organizations would have a greater role in this movement if we worked together to share resources and ideas. Each organization does what it does best, without trying to learn and do it all. NOFA-VT provides training and technical assistance to farmers and school nutrition personnel. Food Works was (it folded in 2014) an educational organization specializing in community-based food/garden curriculum and integrating themes of hunger prevention and ecology into curriculum. Shelburne Farms is a well- established nonprofit education center and working farm dedicated to cultivating a conservation ethic by teaching about stewardship of agricultural and natural resources and by practicing sustainable rural land use.
Collaborating, which requires joint decisions, joint fund raising, joint staff hiring, and shared administrative tasks has not always been easy or efficient. Imagine the number of meetings! However, we have purposely kept Vermont FEED as a project of two strong partners who continue to grow the farm to school movement in Vermont. In addition, as new farm to school initiatives started in communities across Vermont, we saw the need for statewide network building to share the ideas and strategies for addressing farm, food and nutrition issues and identify some of the key economic and policy issues. Now the Vermont FEED partners are the backbone of our statewide farm to school network. With about thirty other organizations and state agencies we have developed a shared goal to address food system changes at both the local and state level and became a Farm to School model project nationally.