Two north Atlanta moms hit on a great idea while standing at a neighborhood school bus stop.
While waiting for their children to come home from classes one afternoon last year, Elizabeth Davis and Angela Renals discovered they had several mutual interests: environmentalism, healthy eating and growing their own food. That’s when Davis suggested they attend an inaugural county-wide Farm to School meeting.
Chesnut Charter Elementary School hasn’t been the same ever since.
It’s been less than a year but Chesnut now has a Farm to School program that includes an organic vegetable garden, a start on a small orchard, visits from farmers and a monthly, locally grown fruit or vegetable day. The school also recently won a grant to help fund the program.
Part of a trend
Similar programs have been established at 9,807 schools in 2,305 school districts in all 50 states, according to the Farm to School network website
. “Because these numbers are self-reported, there are very likely more programs going on than this,” said Chelsey Simpson, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Farm to School membership and communications associate.
Farm to School is a nationwide program that connects students in grades K-12 with healthy, locally sourced food through a variety of education and experiential learning initiatives. “We like to think of this as a win-win-win,” said Simpson.
“It improves marketing for farmers, improves food nutrition in schools and helps change family and community health habits, thus keeping food dollars local,” she added.
But the nation’s Farm to School program is not a big corporation that provides programs and funding to schools. “That’s the biggest misconception,” Simpson said. “It’s very grass roots.”
Farm to School genesis
Those grass roots sprouted in California and Florida with pilot projects in 1996. In 2000, the program received support from the United States Department of Agriculture and in 2004 the Child Nutrition Reauthorization authorized the creation of the National Farm to School Program.
A year later, the Kellogg Foundation gave the program a grant that allowed the creation of a national staff of four officers, all of whom live in different cities and work from home. That led to the establishment of advocacy partners in related businesses in eight cities around the country and in each of the 50 states. Together, these more than 60 people form a boots-on-the ground national network that is changing the face of school nutrition in America. They are doing that by supporting individual school programs in such areas as policy development, training and technical assistance and research and evaluation.
In 2010, the program once again found congressional support with the allocation of $5 million annually in the USDA-funded Farm to School Competitive Grant Program through the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. And just last year the White House lent its prestigious name to Farm to School in a task force report on childhood obesity that recognized Farm to School as a strategy for obesity prevention.
Modifying children’s eating
“You can’t study when you’re hungry,” Rodney Taylor, director of nutrition services for the Riverside (California) Unified School District, told a Georgia Farm to School summit in Columbus, Ga., in February.
“If we’re not feeding them properly and ensuring they have a healthy body, we are falling short for our kids,” said Taylor.
“Modifying children’s eating behaviors, starting with pre-school, is an awesome responsibility,” said Taylor, a pioneer in Farm to School salad bars. “One in three children — one in two for Latinos and blacks — born in 2000 will have diabetes if we don’t change their eating habits.”
As a way to do that, he urged superintendents, principals, school board members, food nutrition staff and teachers in the audience to collaborate to change the perception of school food service.
Pull the junk food
One of the ways to do that, he told the educators, is “to pull the junk (food) out” of their schools. But, he cautioned, “don’t demonize food. What kids need to consume is more fresh fruits and vegetables.”
That, he said, will require policy work from advocates and non-profits.
Across the country, there are hundreds of individual advocates, such as young mothers and non-profit groups, like PTA groups, as well as state agencies, agriculture and education departments for example, that form the grass roots heart and soul of Farm to School, Simpson said. And because local food sources are unique to each community and region, the Farm to School Network does not ask or expect individual schools starting a program to follow a prescribed list of practices. Instead, each school establishes its own Farm to School program based on the demographics of its school and community.
The three-stage approach
Davis and Renals created a three-stage approach to introduce a Farm to School program at their children’s school in North Atlanta that they believe is adaptable to any locale.
Here is their how-to guideline to establish a Farm to School program in your children’s school using three stages:
Stage One: Lay the groundwork
Find at least one faculty sponsor.
Define your mission (in conjunction with sponsor).
Research interest. (Survey parents, meet with administration, PTA and any other governing bodies to collect feedback and discover operating rules.)
Stage Two: Plan your program
Realize that your program will be unique according to local resources, school district regulations and the priorities of faculty, parents and administrators. With that understanding, let the four ‘Cs’ be your guide:
Research the Farm to School curriculum.
Start simple, using a school garden as an experiential teaching tool for history, math, science and health.
Develop lesson plans that teach all subjects through a focus on local food, sustainable choices and nutrition.
Form an after-school club to explore topics in more depth, encouraging students to share what they learn with their peers and at home.
Work with school and county nutrition staff to bring local, healthy options to your school.
Promote these menu additions.
Adjust the menu, if possible, to reduce sugary offerings.
Install a salad bar if feasible.
Invite local farmers to the school.
Organize trips to local farms or community gardens.
Fund teacher participation in Farm to School workshops.
Create an outdoor classroom in the organic vegetable garden.
Allow graduating classes to plant sweet potato slips in the spring to be harvested when classes resume in the fall.
Identify parents with gardening experience, and ask them to establish an organic school vegetable garden.
Ask these parent leaders to host educational garden outings to plant, harvest and taste the produce and herbs.
Give teachers freshly harvested produce and request feedback or recipes. Invite a chef to demonstrate how garden produce can be used to prepare snacks and meals.
Stage Three: Launch
Identify short and long-range projects.
Establishing a school-year calendar of events and submit for administration approval.
Research grant and donation potential.
Submit an annual program budget to proper oversight groups (administration, PTA, etc.)
Build community by promoting your plans and accomplishments (website/blog, flyers to all parents, e-newsletters to club parents, relationships with local reporters).
Build garden beds and plant.
Have other tips for how to establish a Farm to School program? Leave a note in the comments below.