COBLESKILL, NY — Amidst a “Bomb Cyclone” weather event, a New York State Regional Farm to School Conference occurred Jan. 4, on the campus of SUNY Cobleskill, the first held in the area since 2006. Despite the unpredictable circumstance, the majority of registered attendees, and most of the speakers, were able to come together to learn about the process of bringing fresh, local food to the children of our public schools. The conference, which was produced by NYS Farm to School grantee Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Schoharie Valley Farm to School Project, and including several hands-on workshops, was titled, “Farm to School: Creating an Easier Path to Farm Fresh Food”. The diverse audience included school business office managers, farmers, school food service managers, and representatives of community-based organizations, including economic development. While the majority of attendees came from within a radius of 75 miles from all points north, south, east and west, some traveled as far as 250 miles to attend.
The first segment of the conference, referred to as “The Big Picture” tapped into several SUNY Cobleskill professors to offer information on the broader implications of our food system that are, to use one speaker’s own word, “stunning.” In particular, Jason Evans, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Agriculture and Food Management as well as Director of the Institute for Rural Vitality at SUNY Cobleskill, and Anne Rogan, RD, CDN, Ph.D., of a Culinary Arts faculty member, both had a role in presenting this first unique segment. Glenda Neff, Farm to Institutions NYS Co-Coordinator, joined them in the opening session to discuss choices that favor the adoption of a farm to school concept and the positive effect that those choices could have on the physical and environmental health of communities.
The brainchild of Schoharie Valley Farm to School Project Director Regina Tillman said several organizations were involved in helping to produce the regional Farm to School Conference. For starters, the Project is administered under the auspices of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Schoharie & Otsego Counties, providing fiscal management and support. With the approval of the conference by Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Susan Zimmerman, for SUNY Cobleskill sponsorship, Tillman was able to tap into several additional campus resources. The conference was also the recipient of the generous support of NYSNA (New York School Nutrition Association) and the New York Apple Association as co-sponsors.
However, the conference and workshops would not have been possible without the NYS funding of the Schoharie Valley Farm to School Project, awarded in 2015 in the first round of Farm to School Grants offered by the State. As noted by Regina Tillman, it is estimate that over 40 percent of schools in NYS participate in some form of a Farm to School concept. Nevertheless, it was still problematic to her, as well as to the farmers she has spoken with through the years prior, that the essential farm to school element of making routine purchases from local farms was not occurring. “My objective was to dial it up, so to speak,” said Tillman, “in order to get more schools into procuring locally grown and produced foods, removing obstacles one at a time. And, I think that from the evaluations submitted after the conference, despite a program cut short so that people could start making their way through the storm, the initial approach was successful and will serve as my model for future workshops.”
The majority of attendees remarked that they were “extremely” or “very likely” to share with colleagues what they had gained in knowledge and skills, and that they were extremely likely to attend the next Farm to School Conference. Feedback from conference presenters also included an array of positive comments, probably best summed up by Mark Bordeau, Senior Food Service Director, Broome-Tioga BOCES, stating, “the location was great… the food was spectacular… Regina Tillman did an excellent job!”
Along with the aforementioned speakers, Dr. Evans, Dr. Rogan and Glenda Neff, the following professionals assisted with the day long program of presentations and workshops for Farm to School information-sharing and skill-building: Andra Spencer, Economic Development Specialist/Farm to School at NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets; Joanne Lennon, MBA, Food & Nutrition Service Director at Chicopee Public Schools, MA; Rachel Harb, Sustainability/Farm to School Coordinator at Chicopee Public School, MA; Melanie Wilk, UMass Dietetic Intern; John-Erik Knocho-Schnellenberg, CCE Ulster County – Eastern NY Commercial Horticulture Program; Mark Bordeau, Senior Food Service Director, Broome-Tioga BOCES and Vice President, NYSNA, and Amy Halloran, author and Troy NY-based local food advocate. Technical and creative support was provided through the expertise of: Enrique Johnson, Schoharie Valley Farm to School Administrative Consultant, Douglas Macleod, Jr., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communications at SUNY Cobleskill; Steven Snyder, SUNY Cobleskill Communications student; and Cindy Schultz, previously employed by Albany Times Union newspaper for 18 years, photographer at Cindy Schultz Photo.
For more Farm to School information, to be added to the mailing list to receive future workshop announcements or to volunteer, Regina Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 518.234.4303 (office), or 518.229.1548 (mobile).