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How the collaborative work of farm to school can disrupt neoliberalism in public schools

Abstract

Farm to school (FTS) is a popular approach to food systems education in K-12 schools across the United States. FTS programs are highly heterogeneous, but generally include serving locally grown fruits and vegetables in school nutrition programs, planting and maintaining school gardens, and engaging students in garden and food-based learning across the school curriculum. While FTS has been promoted as a “win–win–win” for children, farmers, and communities, it has also been critiqued for reinscribing neoliberal trends (i.e., individualism, private funding, and volunteerism) that exacerbate social inequalities. Through a year-long, ethnographic study of FTS within one public middle school in the Southeast US, this paper contributes to these debates. Drawing upon theoretical frameworks of materiality and affective labor, we investigate how engagement with FTS activities can transform the social practice of everyday life in school for students, staff, and teachers. We find that FTS can reframe success in collaborative terms, engage the school around collective responsibility, and foster relationships across socioeconomic and racial difference. Although there is continued need to expand policies to ensure equitable funding for FTS, our research demonstrates that the hands-on work and collective subjectivities produced through FTS can mitigate the harms of neoliberalism and be a force for positive social change within a school.

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Notes

  1. This issue, which is a focus of Allen and Guthman’s 2006 critique of FTS, is deserving of further analysis; nevertheless, it is outside the scope of the current article.

  2. We use pseudonyms for the school, town, staff, and students to protect confidentiality. Students chose their own pseudonyms.

  3. While local procurement of food is a central facet of FTS praxis, it is largely outside the scope of the current analysis, primarily because it is managed at the district-level; thus, teachers, staff, and students at HMS have little control over this aspect of FTS. Nevertheless, it bears mention that the district was committed to local purchasing and highlighted local foods on a weekly basis—although, most “local” purchases came through their local distributor rather than direct from local farmers (c.f., Thompson et al. 2017).

  4. AmeriCorps VISTA or Volunteers in Service to America (sometimes called “the domestic PeaceCorps”) are year-long, full-time service positions “with the mission to strengthen organizations and alleviate poverty” (CNCS n.d.). VISTAs receive a modest living stipend and an education award at the end of their service term.

  5. Cooperative Extension is the public outreach and education arm of Land Grant Institutions—aimed at providing research-based information and support to farmers, families, and communities through programs including Master Gardeners and 4H. Extension personnel includes statewide specialists, as well as county agents and educators (USDA n.d.).

  6. We also interviewed students as a part of our larger research project, although we do not expressly draw from these data in this article.

Abbreviations

FCS:

Family and consumer sciences class

FTS:

Farm to school

HMS:

Hickory Middle School

LID:

Low incidence disability class

VISTA:

Volunteers in Service to America

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Acknowledgements

We thank River County School District faculty and staff for all of their ongoing collaboration and support of this project. This study was supported by funding from the USDA NIFA National Needs Fellowship in Sustainable Food Systems (Grant No. 2013-38420-20497, Berle PI), USDA NIFA Grow It Know It Training Program (Grant No. 2018-68010-27672, JJ Thompson PI), and the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Jo Thompson.

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Bisceglia, A., Hauver, J., Berle, D. et al. How the collaborative work of farm to school can disrupt neoliberalism in public schools. Agric Hum Values 38, 59–71 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-020-10128-3

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Keywords

  • Food systems education
  • Farm to school
  • Neoliberalism
  • Materiality
  • Affective labor