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Western Slope Wins $90k to Support Farmers

Colorado Farm to School Task Force Logo

August 11, 2016

Sophie Oppenheimer, Spark Policy Institute & Colorado Farm to School Task Force

Abbie Brewer, Valley Food Partnership

Western Slope Wins $90k to Support Farmers
The Colorado Farm to School Task Force and CoBank join forces to support farm to school

The Western Slope, headed by the Valley Food Partnership, won a $90k grant to support local producers who would like to sell their produce directly to local schools, but face structural hurdles. Now underway, the program will reimburse farmers – up to $10k per farm – for any investments they make that will improve on-farm food safety. In exchange, farmers must demonstrate increased sales of fruits and vegetables to local schools.

The Colorado Farm to School Task Force and CoBank joined forces to create this pilot program in an effort to support farm to school in the region. The funding was allocated through a regional competition between Western Slope, the North Front Range, and the South Front Range. Regions identified a lead community-based organization, at least two school districts, and at least five local farmers to apply for the grant. 

The Western Slope area, known as the state’s “fruit basket”, is well-situated to take full advantage of this program. “We couldn’t be more pleased to see the Western Slope area win the competition. We are confident the program will help them significantly expand the supply of local fruits and vegetables sold to their schools” said Sarah Tyree, Vice President of Government Affairs at CoBank.

The innovative program directly addresses food safety, which is a major barrier for producers to sell to schools. While many small- to mid-sized producers sell directly to consumers, such as at farmers’ markets, selling to most schools necessitates they have formal farm food safety plans. This poses a big jump in costs and time. The pilot program directly addresses this barrier by providing a supply-side investment in farm to school. Ultimately, this investment will promote a healthier Colorado by expanding the amount of local produce sold to schools and a stronger economy by increasing the number of producers selling produce to schools.

Lyn Kathlene from Spark Policy Institute said, “This initiative will make Colorado a vanguard in the Farm to School movement. Very few states in the country are approaching the supply side of Farm to School expansion by investing in on-farm food safety improvements.”

Eight growers joined in the grant application. Joining them are two school districts – Montrose and Mesa – which have begun buying local produce and want to buy a great deal more. Valley Food Partnership is the community lead partner and brings a strong track record of implementing local food programs. Spark Policy Institute will be evaluating the impact of the pilot program to see if on-farm food safety investments help farmers participate in the school food marketplace. If successful, the Colorado Farm to School Task Force and CoBank hope to expand the program to other regions.


About Valley Food Partnership
Located in the heart of Western Colorado’s Uncompahgre Valley, the Valley Food Partnership includes a diverse group of stakeholders who are dedicated to growing the local food system while improving the health of their citizens and economy. To learn more, visit:

About the Colorado Farm to School Task Force
In 2010, the Colorado General Assembly created the Colorado Farm to School Task Force to “study, develop, and recommend policies and methods to best implement a Farm to School program.” Composed of 15 appointed members and 12 ex-officios, the Task Force has produced a wealth of resources and oversees programs that benefit producers and schools. To learn more, visit:

About Spark Policy Institute
Spark Policy Institute develops innovative, research-based approaches to help foundations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations solve complex societal problems that defy easy solutions. To learn more, visit:

About CoBank
CoBank is a national cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America. In addition to serving its direct retail borrowers, the bank also provides wholesale loans and other financial services to affiliated Farm Credit associations serving approximately 75,000 farmers, ranchers and other rural borrowers in 23 states around the country. CoBank is headquartered outside Denver, Colorado. To learn more, visit:

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Is Google Fusion Tables Right for My Social Impact Project?

Colorado farm to school Google Fusion Tables map

What do the Colorado Farm to School Task Force and a Denver-based Community Navigator initiative have in common? Well, beyond the fact that they’re projects looking to make a big change in the world, they’re both initiatives that rely heavily on the idea of “place”. In our last blog in this series, we explored how mapping can help tell a powerful story and how GIS can help tell that story. But what do you do when you need a tool that is easy for your partners to use and apply on their own? Enter Google Fusion Tables. As the name implies, this web-based application makes it easy to merge (“fuse”) and analyze data with charts, graphs, and maps. In both projects, Fusion Tables allowed us and our partners to combine our existing information to produce actionable insights for the populations we serve.

From our experiences using Fusion Tables, we’ve found them to be…

  • Google Fusion TablesVersatile – effective for various tasks, including mapping and data management. Even better, it plays nice with other Google products like Google Sheets and Forms, which can be a significant benefit when working with community partners.
  • Good for Collaboration – as long as your partners have a Google account, they can use or modify the data, charts, and maps.
  • Relatively Easy-to-learn – if you feel comfortable navigating the internet and using basic spreadsheets, Fusion Tables are easy to use. However, administering and developing a new Fusion Table takes a bit more tech savvy.
  • Limited in Comparison to Specialized Tools – while you can get a nice set of maps, Fusion Tables are much more limited than standard GIS software. Similarly, if you want better tables and charts, Excel and Tableau are the way to go.

Over the years, our partners in in the Colorado Farm-to-School Task Force have cataloged the various initiatives and projects they and their collaborators have developed. They realized that combining and geocoding could:

  • Help them to address questions about how farm-to-school activities in Colorado have developed; and
  • Help their local partners identify potential collaborators in their geographic area.

We needed an easy-to-use tool that would allow for quick updates to a master dataset as new data comes in, to share the resource across collaborators, and to produce maps nice enough to include on a poster presentation. Fusion Tables met these needs and – importantly – allowed us to collaborate without worrying about the problems of version control. On the down side, we were unable to include multiple layers of geographic information, a standard feature of most GIS software; however, we were able to come up with a work-around solution. In the end, the maps we produced using Fusion Tables uncovered patterns about how farm-to-school activities relate to other food systems activities in Colorado. With this information, our partners can see potential partnerships with other food systems actors and identify which regions are most in need of their attention.

Colorado farm to school Google Fusion Tables map

Community Navigation

Using Fusion Tables for our work with the Denver Foundation’s Basic Human Needs Project was driven by the need for a database system that could be updated and used by a large number of individual community navigators. Community navigation, which connects low-income people to local resources through a resident navigator, can be improved when navigators share information about local service providers. The challenge is that this information is constantly changing. As part of the initiative, the navigators initially assembled a list of all the providers they use, but they lacked a mechanism for keeping the information up-to-date.

Unlike some other tools we explored, navigators can update information in the shared Fusion Tables database in real-time. They go even go beyond basic content information to adding columns for a rating scheme or updates about upcoming events. Moreover, the map option improved on the original shared Excel spreadsheet, allowing navigators to sort by different types of service providers in different locations and print either a table view or a notecard view of their sorted list.

We also learned that some collaborators can easily embrace the Fusion Table approach, but others struggle with committing the time needed to maintain the data and make the tool worthwhile to all.. If collaboration is essential to your effort, as it was in ensuring community navigators have access to up-to-date information about local service providers, it is important to have a conversation with your partners’ about their willingness to learn this new software.

Want to Learn More?

There are many resources on the web for learning how to use fusion tables. A good place to start is Google’s official site. Searching the web, you’ll find that other people have used Fusion Tables for a variety of tasks, including to tell causal stories (e.g., the Guardian’s analysis of the role of poverty in sparking riots in England), to produce information-rich interactive maps (such as The Nature Conservancy’s maps), and to incorporate publicly available data into their project (like the The Montreal Gazette’s depiction of population density in Montreal metro area).

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Five Years in the Life of a Backbone

The Colorado General Assembly created the Colorado Farm to School Task Force (Task Force), an unfunded entity composed of 13 (now 15) appointed seats to “develop regional farm-to-school networks across the state” in 2010. Today, the Task Force is not only poised to sunset itself ahead of schedule but Food Tank has  recognized it in their “116 Orgs You Might Not Have Heard About, But Should Know in 2016,” a list of organizations from around the world “deserving of the spotlight because of their vital contributions to creating a better food system.”

At their first meeting, the diverse set of members were raring to go. None of them had a full understanding of farm to school (FTS) in Colorado; yet, each had a wealth of knowledge of particular aspects that directly or indirectly touched on FTS. Two major “ah-ha’s” came out of that initial meeting:

  • One, that there were literally over a hundred people or organizations identified as important to fostering FTS in Colorado; and
  • Two, that a task force – composed of appointed members required to meet quarterly – could not possibly do this work without dedicated staff.

Colorado Farm to School RoadmapSpark was selected to support the Task Force and got down to the nitty gritty work of figuring out how to harness the energy, skills, and passion in a way that would allow the task force to reach their end goal of statewide FTS in Colorado. Our first step was to help the Task Force create a strategic roadmap to both understand and find their unique contribution to FTS within the complex, messy intersecting systems of school food procurement, local food systems, public health, public education and all the local, state, and federal laws and regulations governing each sector. After five hours of hard work and hundreds of sticky notes the FTS roadmap took shape, thus setting the framework for five years of systematically pursing the Task Force’s end of the road “collaborative, sustainable, farm to school statewide.” As the backbone, Spark was integral to the journey.

Is backbone just a fancy name for staff?

In short, no! Backbones often do much of what a staff would do for an organization – coordinate and facilitate meetings, pull together materials, outreach to key stakeholders – but backbones are central to the work of an initiative, ensuring the sum is far greater than its collective parts. Among the key skills backbones provide are:

How has the backbone work contributed to the growth of FTS in Colorado? We’ve pulled together some great examples of Spark’s work as the backbone over the years, including examples of how we’ve:

  • Guided vision and strategy;
  • Supported aligned activities;
  • Established shared measurement practices;
  • Built public will;
  • Advanced policy; and
  • Mobilized funding.

FTSColorado is now a national leader in FTS in terms of the Task Force model, the innovative practices being implemented, and the sheer growth in the number of school districts engaged in FTS. Since 2010, FTS in Colorado has grown nearly five-fold: from 22 districts in 2010 to 105 districts in 2014. Schools are now spending nearly $18 million dollars on local food, supporting local economies and local farmers!

Messy, complex systems work like FTS needs a backbone to support all the moving parts – from crafting a vision, working with aligned stakeholders, establishing shared methods of measurement, building public will, advancing policy, and mobilizing funding. And a backbone – like the amazing partners surrounding it – is in it for the long haul! Backbones are critical to any systems change initiative.

Are you working on a multi-system or collective impact initiative and want to learn more about how Spark can support you? Check us out and get in touch – we love challenges that will make the world a better place!

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Making planning actionable: lessons from the Colorado Farm to School Task Force

Farm to School Logo

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This is one of my favorite quotes from Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist known for her holistic understanding of human adaptation and the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life. Mead believed in our innate capacity to learn from each other to create change, viewing diversity as a resource that allows for greater exchange of ideas and experiences.

Farm to School LogoOne of the best parts of my job at Spark is the opportunity to partner with thoughtful, committed groups of people every day who create systems-level change to society’s most complex problems. One of those groups is the Colorado Farm to School Task Force. In its early stages, the Task Force teamed up with Spark and embarked on an intensive Strategic Roadmapping session. Strategic Roadmaps start with defining the change we want to see in the world and working backwards to define smaller changes that will lead to that big change. True to Mead’s observations of interconnectedness, Strategic Roadmaps consider the broader context within which a group is working and focus on the “why” of the work rather than the “how,” allowing for adaptation in a changing environment.

Colorado Farm to School RoadmapAt the end of the day, a Strategic Roadmap is not just a pretty picture (although they certainly look nice!) – it is actionable! In fact, the Task Force revisits their Roadmap quarterly to integrate new learning about the context and environment in which they are working, and to plan their shorter- and longer-term strategies moving forward. One of the most powerful ways the Task Force uses the Roadmap is to identify priorities and evaluate whether emerging opportunities are likely to influence the changes they hope to see in the world. It’s easy for a statewide body to get lost in the large and dynamic field of food systems; the Roadmap is one tool to facilitate strategic action within such an environment. Indeed, the Task Force is a diverse group of citizens committed to changing the world through strategic learning and thoughtful action.


Interested in learning more about adaptive planning like the Strategic Roadmap? Our Adaptive Planning Toolkit guides users through the roadmapping process and provides broader strategies for planning in dynamic environments.

Curious about farm to school and what it means for our students, local economies, and food systems? October is National Farm to School Month, a great time to learn about the organizations working to improve healthy eating in schools across the state and the nation.