Farm to school program thrives in Park County

Thursday, August 8, 2019

When Rachael Jones filed a grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, she knew she was up against hundreds of competing applications from across the United States.  

But Jones, executive director of Farm to School of Park County, put her head down and met the November 2018 grant deadline.

She recently received notice that the $100,000 grant had been awarded. With the grant secured, Jones said the Farm to School program is expanding to include all of Park County.

“This is the highest tier of federal funding available to organizations like ours. USDA told me our application stood out because it demonstrated our ‘strong experience and readiness to conduct farm to school initiatives,’” Jones said. “Now we have two years to spend our funds wisely, do the work and show USDA they were right to invest in our community.”

The local Farm to School program began as Livingston Farm to School in 2008. Jones, who is known to her students as “Farmer Jones,” founded Farm to School of Park County in 2018 in an effort to change the name and expand the purview of the organization to include all of Park County. This USDA grant will move the organization toward the goal of designing and implementing programs that will benefit all of Park County — from Wilsall to Gardiner, Jones said.

The grant will allow her and the organization to create a true countywide farm to school presence, Jones said. The grant will be combined with in-kind support from area schools, and Jones said proven practices developed in Livingston will be used to spread the Farm to School mission to more Park County youngsters.

“We currently enjoy a unique combination of the right people in the right places at the right time for this expansion project,” Jones said. “The need for our work is growing, and so are we.”

With this funding from USDA, Farm to School of Park County will work with communities throughout the county to develop a community-supported model of farm to school-based education and food procurement. The model will help to teach children about agriculture, gardening, taste-testing, nutrition and local food procurement, Jones said.

While exposing school children to gardening and harvesting nutritious food, Jones said the Farm to School expansion will focus on helping school food service operations plan and purchase locally-produced foods. This in turn will help support local farmers and ranchers, something she said is expected to ripple throughout the local economy.

This new, expanded program in Park County may someday serve as a model in other rural Montana schools, Jones said.

“We’ve been expanding our systems and processes internally and very purposely we’ve been growing our curriculum and developing it in ways that can be delivered to other schools,” she said. “It’s going to be pretty neat to see how it all unfolds and what projects come out of it.”