Bob Steffen Pioneer Award bestowed upon farm to school advocate

Farm and Food
Small Towns

For almost a decade, Sarah Smith has worked tirelessly on advancing farm to school efforts in Nebraska. Her work began in a pilot program at the Center for Rural Affairs to launch farm to school in the state, and serve as the state lead in partnership with the National Farm to School Network. Sarah managed grant-funded projects that built rural farm to school programming, partnerships, and resource development.

Now, working for the Nebraska Department of Education Nutrition Services, Sarah has helped facilitate a partnership between her department and the Center to build the Nebraska Thursdays program, join the steering committee with the Nebraska Food Council, and partner on the Nebraska Farm to School Leadership Team to advise and collaborate on direction for statewide farm to school efforts and priorities.

Because of her ceaseless dedication to expanding farm to school programs in Nebraska, the Center for Rural Affairs has bestowed upon Sarah the 2020 Bob Steffen Pioneer Award.

The Bob Steffen Pioneer Award is given by Center for Rural Affairs each year to a person or persons whose work with the Center makes extraordinary contributions in building community engagement within their own communities. People who receive this award provide a model for innovation, stewardship, or community development.

Justin Carter, project associate with the Center, has worked with Sarah on these projects, and feels the honor is well-deserved.

“Today, because of Sarah, a state farm to school network exists in Nebraska with multi-organizational leadership,” Justin said. “Sarah has inspired other organizations to conduct farm to school work by offering guidance and communication on what is happening at the national level and strengthening these programs at the state level.”

The award recipient’s efforts have solidified the legitimacy of events such as Nebraska Thursdays and Harvest of the Month, as well as led to a Nebraska victory in the 2019 and 2020 Mountain Plains Crunch Off. Sarah is currently working in partnership with Nebraska Extension and other organizations, such as the Center, to expand the state farm to school network even further.

“It’s fulfilling to partner with people committed to this work,” said Sarah. “When we join together, and when we show up fully in heart and mind to really dig into the issues and opportunities surrounding farm to school, we learn from each other.”

Sarah says she’s excited to have this opportunity to leverage the networks and skills of the organizations she works with, as well as to be ready to widely open the table of conversation and action to different voices across the state.

“This is an entirely inclusive process, and we’re learning together how to support communities across our state in teaching children about agriculture and nutrition, expanding experiential educational opportunities about food that are also culturally appropriate, and increasing the amount of local foods that are sourced into our various school meal programs,” Sarah said.

She also hopes to continue the working partnership between the Nebraska Department of Education Nutrition Services and the Center, and build on the progress they've made together to increase access to healthy and local foods for schools and communities.

“Both organizations support increased diversity of food produced and processed in the state to build a stronger economic foundation and increased food security,” Sarah said. “And, both organizations are actively challenging the path forward, that it be done with a lens of equity. Partnering with the Center has meant that we can dive into the variety of farm to school practices that elevate those values. We can listen, we can learn, and we can act with more intention and understanding and therefore impact.”

Sarah feels honored to receive the Bob Steffen Pioneer Award, as well as to be able to do the work she loves, wherever she’s been throughout her career.

“From managing urban farmers markets to ranching in rural Wyoming to statewide work unlocking the world of local foods and agriculture for youth—I’m so grateful that my individual path has led to this collective impact,” she said. “The Bob Steffen Pioneer Award is a really great indication that the collective care and vision of eaters and growers across the state is taking hold, and the health of our communities will be positively impacted.”

Feature photo: Sarah Smith’s work to advance farm to school efforts in Nebraska have been underway for nearly a decade. In September 2014, she was instrumental in asking then Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman to proclaim October as Farm to School Month. | Center file photo

Bottom photo: During Farm to School Month in 2015, Sarah and Norris Schools in Firth, Nebraska, invited Rep. Jeff Fortenberry to visit the lunchroom. | Center file photo