There are many ways in which Massachusetts can expand food system education so all students have access to this content and these essential life skills. Lawmakers and DESE should support food literacy curricula and programs through additional guidelines around teaching food system education, supported by additional funding and technical assistance. Other agencies and support organizations should support this work through increased coordination and additional resources. And all steps taken to expand access to food literacy should ensure that this expansion is done equitably through all schools and communities, particularly communities of color and low-income communities that have traditionally had limited access not just to this type of education, but to healthy food itself as well.
When Massachusetts Frameworks are updated by task forces organized by DESE, food system education concepts should be included more explicitly and frequently and across many subjects. Nutrition, agriculture, food justice, and basic culinary skills should be required throughout elementary and secondary education and should appear in the health standards, the science standards, and the social studies standards.
There will need to be further discussion about which DESE department should take the lead on these lessons and how interdisciplinary coordination can take place. Relevant departments are science or social studies; which department will lead the effort may depend upon where there is a champion for food literacy and the shifting requirements within each department. There should also be connections to career and vocational education, as well as civics.
The state should bring agencies and support organizations that work on food system education together to ensure that the support being provided is complete and effective and will lead to expanded food system education opportunities. These meetings should include discussions about which organizations provide grants, lessons, materials, pre-service training, and professional development, and whether there are any overlaps or gaps in these supports for schools. This collaboration should be facilitated by the Executive Office of Education and should include representatives from DESE, MDAR, DPH, DCR, UMass Extension, Mass Ag in the Classroom, Mass Farm to School, FFA, farmers and other food producers, educators, parents, and students.
Coordinator positions at the state, district, and school level support food system education. With additional funding, DESE could provide a staff person to provide technical assistance to schools. Some districts have already hired farm to school or school garden education coordinators. More funds should be made available so every district could hire a full time food literacy coordinator.
These staff are typically tasked with coordinating related work that is taking place in classrooms, the cafeteria, and the school garden, and helping schools design a food system education progression so students build on what they learned the year before and the curriculum is aligned with the standards. Coordinators can help raise funds to support the programming, and work with nonprofits that offer food system education.
Teachers need to feel confident in their ability to teach about the food system. There are many impactful professional development programs and courses that strengthen teachers’ ability to understand the full food system, connect those concepts to their existing curriculum, and work with others at the school to create a sustainable program. DESE currently offsets the cost for some teachers to participate in food system related professional development courses through the John Stalker Institute at Framingham State University. The state should increase funding for this program so more teachers can receive regular food literacy professional development.
Creating a food literacy program takes time and coordination and a DESE grant program could help defray some of the costs associated with implementing a new program. A grant program should include funds for teachers to attend professional development opportunities, stipends for teachers who work outside of school hours to design lessons and collaborate with teachers from other disciplines, and technical assistance from DESE to help design high quality lessons.
Local wellness policies have many required elements, including nutrition education. The state should incentivize schools to add more robust goals around nutrition education as well as achievable implementation and evaluation plans by favoring grant applications submitted by districts with strong wellness policies. DESE currently runs the Massachusetts School Wellness Coaching Program which supports districts in meeting the wellness policy requirements. With additional funding this program could impact more schools and focus more on expanding nutrition education goals.
To implement hands-on lessons, schools need materials. Installing and maintaining school gardens is important, as are cooking supplies and food for cooking lessons. DESE should offer a grant program to help offset the cost of materials for food system education. The grant program could provide a range of support – for schools that are starting a food literacy program for the first time, to hire a food literacy coordinator for every school that offers food system education, etc. – however, any grant program should prioritize under-resourced schools.
UMass Extension offers nutrition education to elementary school students in many low income schools. With more funding, this program could expand to serving older students and students in more communities.
UMass Extension is also well positioned to offer pre-service training to people who are in school to become teachers. UMass Extension staff could educate new teachers on how to integrate lessons about food and agriculture when teaching science methods.
DESE should ensure that all students who are interested in taking vocational technical courses are able to do that. This could take the form of expanding programs, continuing to reform the application and admissions process, and encouraging non-vocational technical high schools to offer these food system career courses.
DESE should help to make effective food literacy lessons easy to access by collecting available lessons and making high quality instructional materials available to educators. Lessons should be interactive, based on the latest research, and should align with the required standards. Organizing lessons by topic, age group, and length of the lesson will help teachers to find a program that aligns with their needs.
More data on food system literacy throughout the state is needed. It would be useful to know how many educators are teaching food system concepts and how many students are receiving this instruction. It would also be instructive to track knowledge and behavior change as a result of these lessons through student and parent surveys and plate waste studies which track what students do and don’t eat during school meals. This data could help illustrate the successes of existing programs as well as show gaps in access to food system education across schools and across grade levels and help demonstrate the need for more resources.
Ongoing support for teachers who provide food system education is critical to ensuring these programs continue and thrive. Additional conferences, workshops, and a community of practice could help to share best practices, introduce new concepts, and provide moral support. These events could be organized by various entities; in other states they are often organized by the state departments of agriculture or education, or by a nonprofit, with funding from the state.
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For more information, please reach out to Brittany Peats at [email protected].