Interview with SJ Whelan, Farm to School Coordinator for Harvest New York, Cornell Cooperative Extension

by Casey Dalrymple

As a Farm to School Coordinator with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Harvest New York, SJ Whelan connects New York City Public Schools with local farms throughout New York, not only ensuring that the city’s young minds stay fueled and ready to learn, but also to secure a resilient and diverse food system for all of New York to enjoy. While SJ serves New York Public Schools in specific, Harvest NY’s Farm to School programming is a pillar of New York’s food economy, serving the entire state education system.

SJ was kind enough to take the time to talk with Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center about her work, the intersections of seasonality, supply chains, and nutrition, and the importance of sourcing foods locally for our entire food system.

Food Policy Center: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today about your work! How did you get involved in the Farm to School program? 

SJ Whelan: I started working with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s (CCE) Harvest NY in May 2022, who has been providing local procurement support to institutions for over a decade. I have always worked in the food system but was drawn to farm to school as a way to have a really significant impact, particularly in a market as large as NYC. 

FPC: Can you tell us about some of the essential programming for Farm to School? What are you most involved in? 

SJW: “Farm to school” can mean a lot of things, but CCE Harvest NY’s work is centered on local food procurement. I work on a statewide team, and we are involved in several projects, but my biggest focus is supporting the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) to increase the volume and variety of local food served in schools. My work typically comes in the form of boots-on-the-ground technical assistance for producers, processors, distributors, and school food administrators alike to support local supply chain development and successful local food solicitations. 

FPC: What has surprised you the most about your line of work so far? 

SJW: How complicated school food is! Between child nutrition meal requirements and K-12 procurement rules, it’s like learning a new language! 

FPC: Why is sourcing food locally important — both economically and ecologically? 

SJW: Buying local food supports the local economy by keeping farmers farming. This creates a resilient local food system that can respond to market demands, particularly in times of emergency. Buying locally can also lead to product diversification, decreased food miles, and oftentimes increased nutrition, all of which improve and help to sustain ecological communities. 

FPC: Who are some of the farmers you’re working with? Are you working with farms throughout the state itself, or is there a particular geographical region that you work with most? 

SJW: I work with New York farms of all sizes and types, including large farms in the western part of the state as well as small urban growers. I also work with many food hubs and aggregators that source from a variety of local growers. All operation types are valuable and play an important role in supporting both NYC school food and the state’s food system at large. 

FPC: What sort of foods do you look for in sourcing for New York schools? 

SJW: I work closely with the Office of School and Nutrition Services and let them determine the types of food they want to purchase, which generally means fresh, minimally processed, and culturally relevant products. I also work with producers to make sure the products we’re trying to source make sense for their business. One recent success we’ve had in NYC has been procuring a wide mix of minimally processed vegetables, but we’re actively trying to increase the variety and volume of all products served in cafeterias. 

FPC: What do farms and farmers need most from your end of things? What are some of the issues they struggle with most? 

SJW: Everyone is different, but producers tend to require a lot of technical assistance to sell their products to institutions. Bids are complicated, and responding to opportunities requires a lot of time and paperwork. Other challenges often include lack of infrastructure and/or distribution. 

FPC: What are some of the issues schools are struggling with? How does CCE Harvest NY and the Farm to School program address those issues?

SJW: In general, schools have very tight budgets, and they typically find cost to be the greatest barrier to purchasing local food. Another concern we often hear is that schools struggle with the seasonal availability of local food. Our team works with schools to strategize both their budget and food preferences to identify local food that makes sense for their program. 

FPC: What goes into organizing the supply chain for the Farm to School program? 

SJW: A lot! We must weigh the considerations of school partners, producers, and everyone in between to develop strong and sustainable supply chains. 

FPC: How does seasonality affect the work you do? 

SJW: It can be a challenge, but we do our best to prioritize products that are mostly available year-round, and thankfully there are quite a few in New York State. We also work with products that have a limited season; it just requires more coordination to make sure that these products are being featured on menus when they are available. 

FPC: How has climate change affected the work you do? For example, have this past year’s floods affected your work at all? 

SJW: Climate change impacts our work. It can lead to product shortages and price fluctuations, and it threatens the livelihoods of our growers. That said, I would also argue that Farm to School can build resilience in the face of climate change by offering producers greater market opportunities and developing strong value chains that can provide a source of mutual aid in times of crisis. 

FPC: What has been your biggest win so far? 

SJW: My biggest win has been supporting OFNS in receiving their recent $8.4 million Local Foods for Schools grant. In response to this funding, we were able to add twelve new local products into NYC schools citywide, all of which are minimally processed vegetables coming from small NY state producers. Adding these new products was a highly collaborative effort between  my partners at OFNS and our food system partners across NY state. 

FPC: What are some programs you’re excited about right now? What does the future hold for CCE Harvest NY and the Farm to School program? 

SJW: There is a lot I’m excited about! Right now, I am working closely with OFNS and the Mayor’s Office  of Urban Agriculture to provide training to historically underrepresented producers to increase access and capacity to respond to procurement opportunities. Also, CCE Harvest NY, in partnership with the NYS Department of Education, is hosting the inaugural NY Farm to School Summit in Syracuse this November! 


Grew up on: Long Island 
City or town you call home: Brooklyn, but also Burlington, VT holds a special place in my heart. 
Job title: NYC Farm to School Coordinator 
Background and education: I received my MA in Food Studies from New York University and a BA in philosophy from the University of Vermont.
One word you would use to describe our food system: Complex 
Food policy hero: Carlo Petrini and Dr. Carolyn Dimitri 
Your breakfast this morning: A smoothie with blueberries, spinach, chia seeds, and yogurt 
Favorite food: It’s a tie between a perfectly ripe, freshly picked tomato (Aunt Ruby’s German Green is my favorite variety) and a homemade chocolate chip cookie. 
Favorite food hangout: My apartment! We love to cook and host our friends and family. 
Food policy social media must follow: I’m not very active on social media, but NSAC is usually a great resource.

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