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Changing the System and Ourselves: What We’re Doing Differently with the Food and Farm Initiative

Posted by: Janet McLaughlin on 6/15/2016

I’ve just returned from the National Farm to Cafeteria conference, an inspiring gathering of over 1,000 changemakers in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was invited to share how the Vermont Community Foundation is supporting farm to school in our state. People from across the country are noticing Vermont’s success in creating strong, equitable farm-to-school programs, and our Vermont partners credit the Food and Farm Initiative’s unique approach as a key factor in their progress. 

We created the Food and Farm Initiative in 2012 as our first “Big Impact” initiative. We wanted to challenge ourselves, our partners, and our fundholders to go deep together on an issue of critical importance to the future of Vermont. We wanted to change the system that was keeping all Vermonters from enjoying the benefits of a healthy local food system.

A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review defines “systems change” as “a fundamental change in policies, processes, relationships, and power structures, as well as deeply held values and norms.” That is big, heady stuff. As a funder, we needed to figure out our role in helping facilitate this kind of work. We had to challenge ourselves to step off of well-worn paths, adjusting our own practices, policies, and norms to respond to the needs of our partners. To change the system, we first had to change ourselves:

  • We implemented a more transparent proposal process for the Food and Farm Initiative. We bring together applicants for a group conversation soon after the Request for Proposals is issued. Grantseekers share what projects they are planning to propose, and then they work together to align (or even combine) their proposals and ensure that their efforts can build upon one another’s work. This helped move some of the decision-making away from Community Foundation staff and into the hands of the grantees as they planned their projects and proposals from a more informed position. 
  • We extended our grant period. Systems change work doesn’t lend itself to 12-month increments. We agreed to renew funding for organizations and projects for up to five years, rather than one or two. And, in the middle of the Initiative, we extended our grant period to 18 months both to increase the time partners had to complete their projects and to reduce the administrative burden of proposal creation and reporting.
  • We flexed our grant cycles in response to new circumstances. We completely changed the timing of one grant cycle to allow a critical project to be completed before new projects were chosen. We provided support to the Vermont Farm to School Network to undertake a collaborative systems mapping and strategic planning process. An initial effort to self-organize in the first year of initiative didn’t get the job done; the Network realized they needed a skilled facilitator to get to the heart of matter, to draw out people’s priorities and beliefs, develop a shared goal, and build consensus on the highest priority levers of change. We adjusted the timing of Food and Farm Initiative grants so that projects aligned with the Network’s collaboratively developed top priorities.
  • We invested in the capacity of our grantees. Creating systems change requires that organizations and staff have the time to build relationships and develop their collaborative skill sets. Early on, we recognized the need to build a common language and understanding of success, so we provided grantees with coaching on Results-Based Accountability. We’ve made grants that support “communities of practice” and provided consultants on strategic planning, marketing, and business development to our grantees. We need strong and flexible organizations that will be able to take the long view required for systems change.
  • We convened grantees as each successive Request for Proposals was developed and after grants were awarded. We provided space for sharing so that grantees could build upon and learn from each other’s projects, so they could receive and provide support to fellow grantees, and so we, as Community Foundation staff, could identify additional ways to be helpful beyond the grant funds. 

Now, we see and feel these changes paying off. The Farm to School Network has moved from a loose learning network to an action-oriented collaborative, tackling projects designed to spur innovation in supplying local foods to schools and creating school policies that both fight hunger and support farmers. We see each partner using their unique strengths and talents to contribute to the coordinated effort to support our local food system, with one group leading on research, another on developing markets, and another still on educational materials. We see state-level groups transferring their expertise to farms and schools through local nonprofit partners. The system is beginning to change. 

And with the changing system, we’re seeing results in our communities. More kids are getting healthy local food at schools, farmers are selling more food to their neighbors and throughout the state, and more Vermonters are seeing Vermont-grown or raised food as their own. Stay tuned for future blog posts where I’ll dive into each of these points!    

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