The National Farm to School Network is hosting the 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Madison, Wis., and pre-conference activities kicked off Thursday with hundreds of leaders in the farm to cafeteria movement exploring the Madison area food system and farm to institution landscape.

From aquaponics to urban farms and hospitals to college campuses, more than 370 pre-conference attendees experienced Wisconsin’s farm to cafeteria initiatives first hand through 10 local field trips. One group of learners explored Wisconsin’s deep roots in dairy as they traveled to farms and processors who bring milk, cheese and other dairy products to institutional markets. Stops included a tour and tasting at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, a farm-based education experience at Sassy Cow Creamery and a visit to an Organic Valley dairy farm.

Another group explored innovative youth gardens across the Madison area that strive to cultivate healthy youth and vibrant communities. Among the stops was Goodman Youth Farm, a community nonprofit/school district partnership program that actively engages students in hands-on, farm-based education in an outdoor classroom. Youth are involved in the entire process of running a small-scale organic farm, from growing, harvesting, cooking and donating thousands of pounds of produce.

Back at Monona Terrace Convention Center, another 250 pre-conference attendees gathered for advanced short course trainings with movement experts from the Wallace Center, National Farmers Union, Chef Ann Foundation, Center for Social Inclusion, Spark Policy Institute, Vermont FEED, Farm to Institution New England and more. Courses included trainings on implementing farm to school practices and operations in school kitchens, starting cooperatives, and building racial equity in farm to cafeteria and wider food systems, among others.

The short course on network development welcomed farm to cafeteria practitioners from across the country to share and explore models of collaboration and coordination for creating state-level farm to cafeteria networks. With presenters from Colorado, Vermont and Wisconsin, a range of experiences were shared in describing the formation and success of various network models. At the end of the course, participants brainstormed ingredients for success in building effective farm to cafeteria collaborations.

As the 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference program kicks off on Friday, we’re welcoming more than 1,000 food service professionals, farmers, educators, policy makers, entrepreneurs, students and youth leaders, representatives from nonprofits, public health professionals, and others to Madison for a one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn, share, network and build momentum for the farm to cafeteria movement. Among them are the next generation of farm to cafeteria leaders, including students Christina Plyman, Trinity Sinkhorn and Kara Shelton. Accompanied by their teach Toni Myers, they traveled from Boyle County High School in Kentucky to present their farm to school successes and learnings as a National Farm to School Network Seed Change Demonstration Site, as well as to network and learn from other experienced farm to school practitioners.

“I’ve seen kids in the cafeteria eat healthier foods because their friends grew it, and they know the garden it was grown in,” Plyman said.

That’s success these student leaders are eager to see continue. Sinkhorn, a junior, commented, “I’m taking on new leadership in our farm to school program, and I’m interested in learning new approach and finding ways to grow our activities.”

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With two full days of workshops, lighting talks, networking sessions, poster presentations and  keynote addresses ahead, there will be countless opportunities for learning. Stay tuned to our blog for daily recaps highlighting the day’s events and experiences. We’ll also be sharing live content on our social media channels, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Follow along with the hashtag #Farm2Caf16. To see pictures from the conference, check out our Flickr page. There’s lots more great stories, key learnings and exciting highlights to come – stay tuned!