What if all school cafeterias supported the Vermont economy?

What if all kids understood how they can effect change in the food system?

What if all students had year-round access to nourishing meals?

What if all kids knew how local food is grown and cooked?

Vermont Farm to School Network Info SheetThe Vermont Farm to School Network's Strategic Mapping Process

Download an info sheet to get the quick story of our strategic mapping process - what it is, what we learned, and what we're doing to make our vision a reality.

What if this wasn't an ideal vision for our schools and communities, but just what we do? 

That’s what the Vermont Farm to School Network wants to see – by 2025.

Farm to School can make this vision real. And it's spreading, school by school, town by town.

But we need to grow faster. We need Farm to School to go viral.

What's Farm to School?

Farm to School enriches the connection communities have with fresh, healthy food and local food producers by changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and preschools.

Where to start? Farm to School is a complicated system. There are many ways we could intervene and create change, but some work better than others. And if Farm to School is going to realize its ambitious vision, we need to act strategically and coordinate dozens of players, organizations, and stakeholders to move together towards a common goal. So Vermont FEED, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and the Vermont Farm to School Network convened a strategic systems mapping process. We came together with more than 60 Farm to School leaders to understand how we can collaborate and take action to spark the growth and change we want.

60 participants + 6 months + 180 system components = 5 clear strategies for change

How did that work? We started by identifying our current state of reality, mapping our system, defining our goal, and identifying four key leverage points that have the potential to radically change the system. Here's what it looks like:

Now we've formed action teams around those leverage points. Each team identified strategies and a series of 90-day projects that can have big impacts on the leverage points in our system. Every 90 days we come back together to review progress, adjust course, confirm our next steps, and get to work again.

Here's what we're up to:

Ready for action? Jump into The Action and find out how we're making change.
Want to go deeper? Learn more by exploring The Process, The Reality, and The System.


Will we get there? Time will tell. But we're already seeing value in the process. Just ask Janet McLaughlin of the Vermont Community Foundation, a funder and active participant.

"Systems mapping transformed this group from a loose learning network to an action-oriented collaborative with a shared vision and shared priorities. People are aligned and energized in a way they weren't before."

The Process

We want a better future. Farm to School can help us get there.

What's a Complex Adaptive System?

Picture a flock of starlings over a river at dusk. Or traffic jams. Ant colonies. Stock markets. All of these complex adaptive systems consist of many separate but interrelated parts. They impact each other in complicated ways and respond together to external impacts. Everyone is in charge and no one is in charge. And when they work well together, they are far more than the sum of their parts.

But Farm to School is part of a complex tangle of personal choices, school policies and town budgets, food supply chains, weather conditions, regulations and legislation, educational standards, funding, and many more.

One key decision or action can ripple throughout the entire system. No one is in charge, and everyone is in charge. That's a complex adaptive system.

If Farm to School is going to bring the change we desire, we need to act strategically to find a tipping point in that beautiful tangle. Systems thinking can help us do that.

Strategic Mapping Framework

  1. What's our current situation? What is the state of Farm to School in Vermont -- our schools, communities, kids, and farms? What are we trying to achieve, and how far are we from getting there? What do success and failure look like?
  2. What structure is causing that reality? What are the different components of our system - people, policies, conditions? How do they relate to each other? Which ones drive changes in which other ones, and why?
  3. Where can we intervene to change that structure and reality? Which of those factors are the most powerful leverage points? Which ones need to be addressed first? Which ones can we impact or change?
  4. How can we make structural, and then behavioral changes? What actions can we take together to move those leverage points? Which actions will get us the farthest, fastest?
  5. How do we need to be, as individuals and a group, in order to create change? How do we need to act and interact? How should we be organized? How should we move forward?

The Vermont Farm to School Network came together in 2014 to answer those questions through a Strategic Mapping process.

The FTS Strategic Mapping Process

Watch Scott's in-depth presentation explaining the whole process.

Over six months,  more than 60 Farm to School stakeholders and Network members:

  • Mapped out more than 180 components of Vermont's Farm to School system
  • Identified 38 components that are critical for sparking change in the system
  • Narrowed those down to four key leverage points
  • Formed five strategic action teams and launched projects

It involved a lot of flip charts, coffee cups, early morning road trips, laughs and hopes and wrinkled brows. And it took a whole lot of committed leaders and stakeholders.

Dig into each stage below and learn how we figured out this beautiful, complex system, or, if you're into this kind of thing, watch Scott's in-depth overview video.

Ready for progress? Skip straight to The Action.

The Reality

Let's be honest. Our kids and communities have a tough road ahead.

We hear it again and again. And Vermont's Farm to School leaders sat down to discuss where things stand right now and where we're headed, a few things stood out:

  1. The overall health of our communities is not where we want it to be - especially for marginalized communities.
  2.  Vermont is actually doing a little better than the rest of the country, thanks in part to our strong local foods movement, close-knit communities, and efforts like Farm to Plate and Farm to School.
  3. We have a window of opportunity to impact this course. It's not too late for change.

Where does Farm to School fit in? We think it is an essential ingredient in changing our course. So does Chuck Ross, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

"Farm to School is one of the single most important things we're doing in agriculture today."

The Vermont Farm to School Network formed to help make sure every Vermont student and school community is engaged in a local food and farm culture that nurtures children’s health, cultivates viable farms and builds vibrant communities.

Our Network includes teachers and administrators, food services workers and parents, farmers, funders, practitioners and non-profits, agencies and advocates, students and distributors and suppliers. 

Read Up

Want more details on what we've done and why it matters? Read up on the case for Farm to School in Vermont.

Download Fact Sheet >

We've done a lot of great things together. Like supporting 30% of our schools with state Farm to School grants. Advocating for more than $8 million in statewide FTS grant funding and program support. Training hundreds of school teams to build strong Farm to School programs. Investing millions of dollars in our farms and working lands enterprises. And sharing ideas, resources and support.

Good news! It works.

Vermont School districts spent $1,380,280 on local products in the 2011-2012 school year. 95% of FTS schools serve local food. And Vermont schools with Farm to School programs report twice the national average in vegetable consumption.



But that's still not good enough.  We have a long way to go, and we can't get there by growing one school at a time.

We need to hit a tipping point that sparks exponential growth.

We need to make Farm to School just part of what we do here in Vermont.

The System

Vermont Farm to School Network Goal

By 2025, 75% of Vermont Schools will lead the cultural shift to a values-based food system that:

  • engages 75% of our students in integrated food system education, community-based learning, nourishing universal meals, and the experience of self-efficacy
  • purchases at least 50% of food from a socially just, environmentally and financially sustainable regional food system.

That's the goal for the entire system. It's meant to point us in the right direction, set the right magnitude, and help us align our strategies.

Speaking of which....

Welcome to our Farm to School system.

Systems Maps

Want to download, zoom in, scroll around and explore? Be our guest!


Look complicated? This is actually the simple version! The full map includes:

  • More than 180 components making up the Vermont Farm to School system
  • Arrows showing which components "drive" or impact others. Some factors influence many others, while some are related to just a few.
  • Colors indicating themes or groupings of components. For example, blue relates to the market for FTS. Green relates to distribution and supply.

Where can we possibly intervene to change this system?

Well, first you identify the most powerful variables. If we can solve or influence these, we stand a chance at shifting the whole. This map shows the 38 most crtical components of the Farm to School system. (How'd we pick them? Go back to Process for the details.)

But we can get simpler still. All 38 are not equal: five stand out as being essential to progress. These are the system's primary leverage points.


  1. Relative Value. We need to demonstrate that FTS (including curriculum and classroom work, school meal programs, local purchasing and more) has strong economic value, relative to programs without FTS components. We need to look at both short-term value (like the cost of local apples for this week's school lunches, vs. apples from out of state) and long-term value (like the difference in spending dollars locally makes to our communities’ health and farm viability) We also need to document the educational benefits of FTS. We need to show that kids who participate in FTS are more engaged in learning with fewer absences and behavior disruptions, and greater engagement leads to better educational outcomes.. We need to show that FTS can provide job training skills and has lifelong benefits.
  2. Policy Demand. Vermont once led the nation in state policies and funding that support FTS. But its time to do more. We need policies supporting universal school meals and local purchasing. We need funding to expand and innovate in Farm to School programming. We need legislators to see FTS as a key strategy in tackling other top legislative issues, including healthcare cost containment, education priorities and economic development.
  3. Supply & Profitability. Local foods are a cornerstone of FTS. We need to make it profitable for local farms to sell their product to schools, and practical for schools to buy it. We need to understand the barriers and opportunities for each, and develop innovations to make local purchasing possible.
  4. Market & Network Coordination. Above all else, we need to make FTS easy. We need to make it simple for food service staff to find, purchase, cook and serve local foods. We need to make it easy for administrators to understand the benefits and implement FTS programs. We need to make it seamless for teachers to integrate FTS into their classrooms and curriculums, and for community members to get involved.

Next stop: action. Clear leverage points leave us with clear opportunities to move.

The Action

Align Deeply. Act Quickly. Adjust Often.

We're off and running, with action teams making progress on our five leverage points and tipping the scales toward a world in which Farm to School is the norm. Our teams operate on a 90-day act-align-adjust cycle. Every 90 days we come together to report progress, confirm our alignment and goals, and set out again on new 90-day action projects.

Explore what's happening on our timeline below, or check out the progress and plans for each individual action team.

Vermont Farm to School Network Goal

By 2025, 75% of Vermont Schools will lead the cultural shift to a values-based food system that:

  • engages 75% of our students in integrated food system education, community-based learning, nourishing universal meals, and the experience of self-efficacy
  • purchases at least 50% of food from a socially just, environmentally and financially sustainable regional food system.

Join us in making Farm to School the norm for Vermont's classrooms, cafeterias and communities. Check back for updates.