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Farm to School Learning Circles

What is a Farm to School Learning Circle?

A Farm to School Learning Circle (sometimes called a Learning Lab) is an 18+ month process to build, strengthen, and/or expand collective farm to school or local food to school efforts within a local community. 
Individuals, organizations and school representatives across the local food system come together, create a common vision and identify short-term goals unique to the community’s needs. As a community of practice, they address systemic barriers to get fresh, local, and sustainable food on the minds and plates of students. The term “Learning Circle” reflects the open, collaborative and community-led nature of this work and how it is grounded in local knowledge, traditions, and culture. A coordinator supports the work of the group.

 

The term “Local food to school” can be used instead of “farm to school.” This term is preferred in some regions and Indigenous communities. It reflects the diversity of local and traditional foods that can be enjoyed in schools from coast to coast to coast, many of which are not sourced from a farm.

See how One Learning Circle Transformed a Community

Watch this beautiful eight-minute video to learn how the Local Food to School Learning Circle on Haida Gwaii, BC, helped community members shift the systems that feed their kids.

About the Learning Circle Model

A Farm to School Learning Circle is an action-oriented community of practice within a local community that works collaboratively to build, strengthen, and expand collective farm to school efforts.

 

One of the first steps in advancing the learning circle process is to bring together interested and influential individuals and organizations from across the local food system. Together, participants articulate a shared vision and key short-term goals that reflect the context, needs and values of the community. The group then agrees on priority actions they can realistically achieve together. 

Participants are brought together at regular points (often every six months) to review progress and to reflect on the group’s action plan. After each session, participants leave with achievable objectives. 

The Learning Circle allows the group to test new ideas over defined periods and then report back to one another. If ideas are successful, they can be celebrated and built on. If ideas are unsuccessful, the group can learn from that experience and move on to the next strategy or action. 

What kinds of goals can a Farm to School Learning Circle work towards?

NL Learning Lab Guide_ENEach Farm to School Learning Circle defines its own goals and chooses how specific or broad its focus will be. These might include any of the following or other priorities set by the group:

  • Build awareness and understanding about the importance of local, healthy and sustainable foods in schools.
  • Increase procurement or consumption of healthy, local, and sustainable foods in schools.
  • Strengthen relationships between the people who grow, harvest, prepare, process, deliver, and eat school food. 
  • Strengthen food distribution systems to improve access to local, healthy, and sustainable foods at schools.
  • Enhance knowledge and skills among students about how to choose, grow, harvest, preserve, prepare and serve local, healthy and sustainable foods.
  • Shift the school food environment and food culture at schools in the community.

Learn more about the Learning Circle Model in our Farm to School Learning Circles Guide

Learning Circles in Action

Since 2013, Farm to Cafeteria Canada has supported five Learning Circles in Canada. 

The Vancouver Learning Lab (BC) focused on providing tools to change buying practices through large-scale contracted suppliers, while also engaging and supporting schools to buy directly from local urban farms. It was the first Farm to School Learning Lab in Canada and influenced institutional supply chains across Metro Vancouver. Read their story

The St. John’s Learning Lab (NL) helped Food First NL and the School Lunch Association to establish valuable partnerships in the drive to make cafeterias better champions of healthy eating and local food. Read their story.

The Haida Gwaii Learning Circle (BC) worked with food suppliers, courier services and school district administrators to develop a workable food delivery process. They created a pantry to source food, secure infrastructure to preserve and process local food, and develop food safety processes and regulations to ensure the foods served met regulatory requirements. Workshops were held on topics such as canning, smoking fish. Read their story.

The Comox Valley Learning Circle (BC) has been organized from 2019-2021 to grow farm to school in the Comox Valley. The Learning Circle has focused on four goal areas: (1) Centralized School / Food Coordinator and Hub, (2) Food Programs at Every School, (3) Food Literacy Curriculum Development, (4) Community Supports for School Food (adopt a farm, University students etc). Read their story (p. 24)

Implement a Learning Circle in Your Community

Many communities might be interested in adapting and adopting the Learning Circle Model.

If your community is engaged in activities that bring more local food to the minds and plates of students, a Learning Circle could help you expand your efforts.

Is a Farm to School Learning Circle right for your community?

  • Is some level of farm to school / local food to school activity well established at more than one school in your community?
  • Does your community have a strong food culture that values local food?
  • Has there been a high level of commitment to farm to school initiatives among various players in your community, including decision makers, over an extended period of time?
  • Is everybody involved willing to work together towards a shared vision and common goals?
  • Could you bring together participants that represent a range of perspectives and experiences and who would be willing and open to incorporate new information and experiences into their work?

Check out page 11 of our Learning Circle Guide to assess whether a Farm to School Learning Circle is right for your community.

If you answered YES to the questions above, a Farm to School Learning Circle could be a great next step to help you bring key people together in a well-facilitated and supportive environment. Through a Learning Circle you can share ideas, collaborate, tackle priorities and barriers, and build capacity to bring about food system change.

Next Steps

From time to time, Farm to Cafeteria Canada has the capacity to fund Farm to School Learning Circles. However, we are always happy to support communities who want to fundraise themselves to initiate a Farm to School Learning Circle. Each Learning Circle typically has a budget of around $50-70,000 for the 18+ month process. 

Reach out if you want to explore your idea with us. We’ll be happy to provide guidance and inform your fundraising efforts.

And if you’re a funder who would like to support or partially fund a Farm to School Learning Circle please get in touch!

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