Growing Farm to School in Native Communities

    November 16, 2018
    by Alena Paisano

    November is Native American Heritage Month, and we're honored to highlight the work that the National Farm to School Network is doing with partners in Native communities across the country to strengthen connections to nature, culture, and food.

    Farm to school is a new term for an ancient concept, a modern approach grounded in the wisdom of our elders. In Native communities, farm to school is rooted in indigenous knowledge to transform school environments into centers of cultural education. This learning takes places in outdoor educational settings such as school gardens and orchards, culinary programs teaching traditional foodways like foraging and preservation, and school cafeterias serving indigenous foods to eager students (and adults) who are re-establishing relationships with traditional foods. Moreover, farm to school has proven impacts on health, education, and hunger.

    National Farm to School Network’s Seed Change in Native Communities with Farm to School project is working with on-the-ground partners to expand and sustain farm to school activities in Native communities from coast to coast. Core to the success of this project has been our understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to creating healthier communities. This is particularly true in Native communities where cultural context must be fully integrated into efforts to ensure their effectiveness and long-term sustainability. National Farm to School Network’s Seed Change model is based upon honoring local leadership and autonomy, while providing essential expertise and meaningful opportunities for peer learning and networking. 

    We know that schools hold a central role as gathering places and hubs for community building. Therefore, this project has focused on supporting partners within five schools as they build their capacity to develop and sustain farm to school activities. Here’s an overview of our Seed Change in Native Communities project partners and a snapshot of what they’re working on:

    Hardin School District 17H&1Crow Reservation: Crow Nation (Montana)
    Partnering with local entities and individuals to empower students in learning about traditional foods, preparation, storage and ceremony. They’re also building a native orchard featuring a variety of native berries, including buffalo berries, june berries and chokecherries.

    Hydaburg City SchoolHydaburg, Prince of Wales Island: Haida Nation (Alaska)
    Connecting students with locally grown and traditional foods (such as rutabagas, parsnips, and the Haida potato) by expanding the existing school garden to include a greenhouse. In May, students celebrated Haida Day by giving Elders a tour of the new greenhouse and learning about the village’s old garden site.

    Indian Township SchoolIndian Township Reservation: Passamaquoddy Tribe (Maine)
    Engaging students in traditional growing practices by reviving an existing greenhouse and school garden. Students are catching fish to be used as garden fertilizer, and learning planting techniques like the Three Sisters. Food grown in the garden now supplements the school lunch program, summer food service and an elderly food site.

    Malama Kaua`i: Kaua`i Farm-to-School PilotKaua`i Island: Native Hawaiians (Hawai’i)
    Supporting an existing three-year pilot project to create a culturally relevant farm to school program at two Kaua`i schools. On Kaua`i, where 90 percent of food is imported, Mala`ai Kula is helping students build a healthier relationship with traditional food systems through school gardens and locally grown foods in school meals.

    Warm Springs K8 AcademyWarm Springs Reservation: Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Oregon)
    Helping students make connections about where food comes from and how it relates to their cultural heritage by planting a school garden and promoting a healthy snacks program. The garden is also being used for science and nutrition education to align with core standards. 

    National Farm to School Network has been committed to supporting these project partners who are changing lives on a daily basis by working to expand farm to school activities. These activities benefit not only Native youth who are directly served in schools, but also benefit their communities as a whole and act as a model for other Native communities looking to dig into farm to school. 

    Here’s one example: “We are trying to make gardening and food sovereignty cool,” says Brian Giles, Special Education Teacher at Indian Township School. “Our afterschool garden program is called Passamaquoddy OG (Original Gardeners). I am working with tribal members to integrate traditional tribal music, hip hop, and traditional dance to create a culture of cool. We are working on t-shirt and hoodie designs that integrate the medicine wheel and tribal colors and language to reward our students for their hard work and to give them a badge of honor. Our OG membership and enthusiasm continues to rise and I am met daily with ‘When are we going to garden Mr. Giles.’ My answer will always be, toke (now).” (Read more about how farm to school is benefiting students and communities through Seed Change on the National Farm to School Network blog.) 

    From garden clubs celebrating tribal culture and school menus serving up traditional foods, to planting heritage orchards and connecting classroom education with traditional teachings, together we have been breaking down barriers and reinvigorating traditional food ways one ear of corn (or salmon, chokecherry, squash, taro) at a time.

    Through this journey of partnership, we’ve learned that with a community-based and multi-generational framework, farm to school is a nexus of economic development, food sovereignty, health and nutrition, and cultural revitalization. We have had a chance to learn more about our unique cultures, swap success stories, and share laughter about our missteps, sample indigenous and traditional foods from lands we’ve never set foot upon, and plot for a future of food sovereignty for our youth where culture meets classrooms and cafeterias across Native communities.

    Alena Paisano leads Seed Change in Native Communities as a Program Manager with the National Farm to School Network. Alena is mother, an experienced practitioner of farm to school, and is dedicated to advocating for the development of just food systems serving our youth, families, and communities now and for future generations. Alena is a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, Dine and Laguna Pueblo, she lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

    National Farm to School Network is an information, advocacy, and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and early care and education environments. To learn more about our work, visit


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