Farm to School Champion: Stephanie Ciner

School Gardener, Erie's Public Schools

Tell us about yourself and your connection to the farm to school movement.

I served the garden-based food education programs at Erie’s Public Schools for four years as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Part of my VISTA work included helping to write and manage a 2018 USDA Farm to School Planning Grant and now a 2020-2022 Implementation grant. I am involved in many aspects of our program, Erie Farm to School, including classroom teaching and Harvest of the Month lesson development, working with our food service to include local items and conduct cafeteria taste tests, and engaging our school communities around the benefits of eating (and growing!) local foods. I’m also a small scale producer, growing fresh foods and offering on-farm education at my small urban farm in Erie, Wild Field Urban Farm.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

A student’s face when they taste a vegetable from their school garden, expecting not to like it, but then they do! The pure surprise and joy — then the urgency to tell all their friends to try it.

What do you find most challenging?

Navigating the large and sometimes unwieldy systems that govern school food policy in our attempts to bring in more local foods. Also (this is a big one) getting buy-in from teachers to include food and garden education in the school day. Proving how our farm to school activities directly connect to academic standards.

How has COVID-19 affected your work? 

It’s made my work a lot more lonely! It’s challenging not to be with students in the classrooms and school gardens. We had some great field trips and activities planned that are no longer happening. We’ve had to transform our system of garden care, harvest, and distribution, as well as integrate new safety protocols for volunteers and school families to access the gardens.

What challenges or inequities are you seeing as a result of COVID-19? 

77% of students attending Erie’s Public Schools are considered economically disadvantaged, according to state data. This translates into huge challenges in the transition to virtual learning, as students have less access to technology and hands-on academic support. We’ve seen a greater demand for food assistance as a result of COVID-19 also.

Are there any opportunities, innovations, or collaborations that you’ve seen or been a part of as a result of COVID-19?

We hope the shift to all-online learning will create an opportunity to reach many more students and families with our virtual farm to school “episodes” that we’re designing for Harvest of the Month. We can feature each school garden and demonstrate to teachers and administrators the gardens’ value as an educational tool. Also, Covid-19 brought together a strong team of volunteers who cared for our gardens and distributed produce straight to school families during the summer. We are excited to build and expand these relationships in future collaborative work. Finally, we’re partnering with a middle school Family and Consumer Sciences teacher to send home local produce with recipes for students and families to cook and sample together.

In general, what would be your advice for those inspired by your work and excited to try/replicate it in their own community? 

Just start where you are with those around you who see the vision--teachers, caregivers, Master Gardeners, farmers, youth. Prioritize relationships. Plant some seeds, get cooking, and celebrate the harvests! And don’t underestimate the power of social media and community outreach to showcase your work and build support.

In general, what opportunities do you see for farm to school in the future at Erie SD? In PA? In the US? 

We’re thrilled to have received the USDA Implementation grant in Erie, and grants from the PA Department of Agriculture in the past year have really helped us to expand our programming from just elementary schools into middle and high schools. We are always working toward opportunities that will reach as many students, staff, and families as possible. Once we installed a garden at every elementary and middle school (13 total) and began to partner with schools on year-round programming, we achieved more buy-in from administration that we believe will result in future opportunities for classroom lessons, field trips, and garden clubs district-wide.

Last year, the state secretary of agriculture visited one of our school gardens to celebrate Urban Ag Week and the new state farm bill. We’re excited for more funding opportunities through the farm bills and the state’s recognition of the importance of agriculture education, which ties right in with farm to school.

Funding and policy changes at the national level would do so much to advance farm to school work around the country.

Stay Informed!

Sign up for our newsletter, The Healthy Food Access Times, and stay up-to-date on the latest policy developments, funding opportunities, best practices and innovative strategies.