Beyond Profit and Loss: Exploring Motivations for Joining Farm to School Programs

Becca Lucas, graduate of UEP’s dual degree program with Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, was nominated for a department award for her thesis work. In the following post, she summarizes her findings on the many reasons why farmers choose to work with schools.

Farm to School (FTS) is an umbrella term for activities that connect students and schools with food producers and has been growing in popularity in recent decades. For schools, these activities often include serving locally sourced food, providing nutrition education, and/or tending school gardens. Farmers participate in FTS programs in different ways: selling products to schools, providing produce for taste tests, and/or visiting or hosting schools to discuss farming. Attention has primarily focused on consumer outcomes – associated improvements in student health and increased revenues for school as farm-fresh menus often attract families that might not otherwise purchase school lunches – while relatively little research centers on the farmers who participate.

The few studies that do focus on producers show that farmers are attracted to FTS for mostly social and community reasons, rather than economic or environmental. This makes sense as there is relatively minimal economic gain as a result of selling to schools, with income increases ranging from 1-5% on average. This doesn’t, however, easily fit into generally accepted ideas of farmer motivations or drivers. Farmer identity literature has predominantly portrayed farmers as dichotomous; either a “productivist” or a “post-productivist” – that is, primarily motivated and driven by increasing output and profits or dedicated to conservation and environmental sustainability, respectively. Farmer participation in FTS did not overly appear to align with either identity and no studies had examined the presence of these two identities or other potential identities propelling farmer’s consideration of FTS as a viable market.

This primary aim of this thesis was to fill this gap and understand why farmers consider participating in FTS and what this means for farmer identity. This thesis was a qualitative extension of a 2018 Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Ph.D. dissertation that focused on barriers and impacts of Mid-Atlantic fruit and vegetable farmer engagement in FTS and/or Farmers Market Nutrition Incentive Programs. Of the 150 farmers that participated in the original study, over 80 indicated willingness to be contacted for a follow up interview. From this sample pool, 13 farmers were interviewed in winter 2018.

Stryker’s Identity Theory (1968) was used as a conceptual framework to examine how the farmers fit into the already conceptualized productivist and post-productivist identities and what other farmer identities may motivate consideration of FTS as a viable market. The productivist and post-productivist identities were measured using proxies of economic and environmental motivations and perspectives within their existing definitions. The additional identities were created inductively, based on this thesis’ definition that identity is an iterative process that informs motivations, shapes values and prompts the pursuit and consideration of identity-relevant opportunities; these opportunities, in turn, can further inform identity.


Of the 13 farmers interviewed, seven who sold to schools at the time are referred to as “sellers,” while six “non-sellers” did not. All non-sellers had been farming for less than 10 years and are therefore classified by the United States Department of Agriculture as beginning farmers. Most farmers interviewed participate or have participated in other FTS-related activities, e.g. being a guest speaker at a school, providing taste test samples to the school or attending a school meal—including every seller and all but two of the non-sellers. All the participants expressed interest and often excitement in selling to schools. Those who were not currently selling to schools cited specific logistical or financial barriers, such as distributional challenges, scale of farming, or consistency potential, that blocked engagement. However, all expressed approval of the system. All participants talked about economic motivations as well as social motivations: the productivist identity was relevant among farmers considering or participating in FTS. In addition, the “educator,” the “health advocate,” and the “philanthropist” identities emerged as part of a third, “socially-engaged” category of identification.

The Productivist (Economic)

The productivist identity was associated with farmers pursuing FTS as a response to consumer demand for local food. Many of the farmers referenced community interest in local food procurement as a main motivator to engage and capitalize on present market systems. Farmers are also business people and it was evident that decisions related to FTS were part of larger business considerations.

“I mean, it’s just the financial…I’m in it for the business and I love being able to make sure that our apples are being served …I’m proud of that, but at the end of the day we have to make money.”

Farmer C, seller

The productivist identity in the FTS context was much more present than the post-productivist identity, as all farmers discussed economic implications and motivations for considering FTS.

The Post-Productivist (Environmental)

The post-productivist employed environmentally-sensitive methods but primarily for other concerns, i.e. health or prices, rather than directly addressing environmental issues. Very few farmers discussed environmental concerns or motivations as primary reasons why FTS appealed to them. For all the farmers, choices that might appear environmentally-driven turned out to be more relevant to other identities besides the post-productivist one. From their perspective, consumer health was a core concern when deciding on “no spray” and other organically-oriented practices.

“…Another factor is they’re getting my produce. I don’t spray, I don’t use any chemicals, the parents can feel good about what their kids are eating and know it’s coming from a local source. It helps my economy, which helps [the] local economy…it’s really like a tree, it kinda branches in lots of different ways.”

Farmer P, non-seller

Overall, the post-productivist identity was not very relevant among participants. The environment was treated more as the background rather than a main motivator or consideration in FTS participation.

The Educator (Socially-Engaged)

The Educator is the identity most inspired or implored to engage in FTS based on interest or past involvement in the education sector. The educator is drawn to create relationships with schools in order to teach children about farmers and farming. Many of the farmers mentioned education as a primary benefit of FTS programming. It was also often discussed as an initial reason that attracted farmers to FTS, even before they considered other opportunities and barriers to engaging. Associated educator activities include FTS as a forum for sharing knowledge among students and community members, and as a way to maintain relationships with schools to which some farmers do not currently sell. These activities were mentioned by both sellers and non-sellers who were planning on selling to schools in the future. One farmer stated the perceived benefit of her engagement with schools was the teachers’ ability to reference what she had shared in science class. The knowledge-sharing and exposure potential of the program was a value reiterated by many other farmers.

Exposing students to agriculture through education was a major theme throughout these farmers’ interviews. A few seemed concerned with younger students not knowing where food comes from or the basics of agriculture. Indeed, many of the farmers discussed the desire to inspire students to begin careers in agriculture as a major reason to be involved in FTS.

“So if we, as farmers, enter into the system, the school system…if we’re gonna be able to feed our country…if we don’t inspire kids to get into agriculture, they won’t be able to survive as a people.”

Farmer V, non-seller

Considering FTS to not be a big money-maker or viable as a solitary market, some participants saw education potential as a main reason to be involved.

“…don’t start a business based on farm to school, that would be disastrous…it’s just something that feathers in and helps and I think it’s a good thing, it’s educational for the students…”

Farmer C, seller

Five out of the six non-sellers talked about education throughout their interview while four out of the seven sellers also discussed education.

The Health Advocate (Socially-Engaged)

The Health Advocate is very interested in addressing what is perceived to be intense health issues among student-age children, like obesity or lack of access to fresh produce due to income constraints. Health was a major reason why farmers considered FTS programs. Both sellers and non-sellers mentioned providing nutritious meals to schools and working to address problems of community health as an important motivation.

Many farmers brought up their own memories of school meals, remembering school lunches to be “junk food.” Like the educators, some farmers have more recent experiences with school lunches through different occupational roles, such as being a health inspector, substitute teacher, or having a spouse that was involved in the school. These experiences were indicated as a compelling factor to consider and engage in FTS. Only two out of the seven sellers mentioned health throughout their interviews, either as a motivating factor or as an opportunity that FTS provides. All but one non-seller noted the opportunity to address the health of students in their community as one of the main reasons they seriously considered or were actively pursuing selling to schools.

The Philanthropist (Socially-Engaged)

The Philanthropist is interested in interacting in FTS with a “do-gooder” mentality and social reasons at heart. While slightly less present in the interviews, the Philanthropist outlook is relevant for some farmers when considering or participating in FTS programs. This “do-gooder” attitude may be illustrated by farmers lowering their prices so as to engage with schools.

“…these schools that are not ordering from me…I don’t think it’s price. Because…I’ve gone to these schools and said, if price is an issue, I’m the farmer, I can match any price.”

Farmer C, seller

Potentially competing with the productivist identity, the Philanthropist seemed okay with undercutting higher profits to pursue school engagement. Some farmers discussed the need to change prices or to readjust financial expectations for FTS relationships; in one instance, a farmer even considered FTS as purely a charitable relationship.

“…if we ever get to a point where we’re very large, we’d like to—kind of do more of a—a program where we can give just, give food rather than sell it to children and families in the communities that need it…so right now, you know, because we’re small, that’s not really on the horizon yet. But that is kind of in our, in our hearts, if we have the ability we would be giving this food to the after school program and things like that that could use it versus trying to ever look into supplying for the larger public schools.”

Farmer R, non-seller

While not all farmers shared Philanthropist values, some made it very clear that they would pursue FTS engagement even to their own financial detriment.


Identity is dynamic. No farmer interviewed was solely motivated by one driving factor, whether it be purely profit or socially-related. All of the farmers interviewed expressed elements associated with the productivist identity, and all were associated with at least one of the socially-engaged identities. The farmer identities explored in this thesis are not necessarily distinct or singular—as has been proposed by many previous farmer identity studies—rather, all are possible and likely salient at the same time. For instance, the health advocate farmers often educated students about health and nutrition through exposure or other strategies employed by the educator identity. Some of these farmers had previous or concurrent occupational identities that were translated into farming: farmers who are currently teachers or who had a previous job in food safety or other health sectors seemed to easily align with the educator or health advocate identities as a result.

The identities discussed in this research were understood in the context of considering FTS as an opportunity, regardless of the final decisions around participation. Participation was constrained by more logistical factors, such as economics and scale. Interestingly, more non-sellers—those whose were only considering participating in FTS—were aligned with more of the socially-engaged identities than the sellers were. This may be because farmers who are actively selling to schools are experiencing FTS in a different way than those who are drawn to the opportunity itself. While still aligned with socially-engaged identities, sellers may have a better idea of the profit implications, and productivist considerations may be more relevant when considering related opportunities.

Many of the participants related FTS to their purpose for farming in general; they were farming to feed individuals, inspire younger generations to get into agriculture as a career through education, or as a way to address health concerns. FTS allowed them a way in which they could express this publicly.

These results were similar to previous findings which demonstrated that the majority of the benefits of FTS engagement were socially-related. The economic benefits of slight income increases and market diversification to a potentially stable contract were also present and salient. No farmer appeared to be singularly motivated by the prices received in sales to schools, but it was used as part of the supporting argument for why they were interested. As some farmers mentioned, the financial aspects of FTS—higher prices, stable contracts—seemed to provide a safe environment to act on a market avenue that allows for social fulfillment.

Acknowledging the importance of these socially-related identities and values within farming is the first step in creating more meaningful and relevant FTS resources. Organizations seeking to facilitate FTS program participation may use this research to more specifically tailor outreach programs to the different identities. These findings could be used not only as a resource for school-oriented organizations that are aiming to engage more farmers in FTS programs, but also for organizations that work exclusively with farmers. For example, publicizing FTS programming as an opportunity to educate students and community members may activate the educator identity and result in greater farmer participation. Similarly for the health advocate, discussing FTS as a way in which farmers can more directly address health concerns among their communities, especially younger students through selling to schools, may promote more buy-in among farmers. The philanthropist farmer may seek opportunities to support local schools through donation of produce or other charitable engagements for specific events or programs.

Understanding how predominant identities, as well as these novel identity conceptions, drive FTS program consideration can help organizations better encourage farmer engagement as FTS continues to grow nationwide.

Author’s Note: Thank you to Liz Marsh, UEP/FANPP ’21, research assistant/inter-rater reliability extraordinaire!

Cover image by Msact (CC BY-SA 4.0)