It’s the end of October, which means National Farm to School Month is drawing to a close. But that doesn’t matter to the students at School Within School in northeast DC—for them, it’s always farm to school month.
Thanks to a farm to school tour hosted by DC Greens and the National Farm to School Network, I was lucky enough to visit a handful of the cutest (and smartest) gardeners in the district as they cooked up some ratatouille with their fall harvest. At School Within School, kids from three years old through fifth grade get to participate in FoodPrints, a gardening, cooking, and nutrition education program that integrates science, math, and social studies into hands-on lessons about local food.
You may have heard that farm-to-school programs support the economy (they generate an additional $0.60 to $2.16 in economic activity for every dollar schools spend on local foods), benefit public health (they help kids choose healthier options and eat more fruits and vegetables in school and at home), and foster community engagement (they fuel interest in local foods and offer opportunities to combat racial and economic inequities), but if you’re like me, you may have learned most of this from behind a computer screen. It’s another thing entirely to see farm-to-school programs in action, and to hear firsthand about what they could accomplish for our kids and communities with the right funding and support.
Walking in the footsteps of FoodPrints
Our tour, led by FRESHFARM director of education Jenn Mampara, kicked off with a quick stop at the chicken coops and then took us to the school garden, where the kids go for lessons once a week. The gardener plants summer crops in August, and when school starts, kids get to weed, water, harvest, replant, and repeat through late spring. During the summer, the garden soil is kept healthy with a rotation of cover crops and beans, which are then dried and used in the fall.
From the garden, we headed up to the teaching kitchen, where students were busy mixing together beans and onions (“It’s watering my eyes!”) from the garden. Produce from the garden is supplemented by local farmers market produce to provide all the ingredients for the monthly cooking lesson that each FoodPrints student attends. The lesson on ratatouille moved fluidly from math (“What will happen if I add one cup of water?”) to science (“Why do we need to soak the beans?”) and back again, and students were engaged in active learning every step of the way.
Watching the educator walk the kids through their recipe, it struck me as wholly unsurprising that studies have shown that kids participating in farm to school programs display greater overall academic achievement, as well as social and emotional growth. Needless to say, kids who participate in farm to school programs also tend to show increased knowledge about gardening, agriculture, and healthy eating.
“It’s a meaningful experience for these kids to have in elementary school,” Mampara said. “This will have a lasting impact on their understanding of good food and where it comes from.”
And speaking of good food—the cooking doesn’t stop in the teaching kitchen. Once a week, the school cafeteria borrows a recipe from FoodPrints, so that kids continue to connect their experience in the garden to the food on their plate. Kristen Rowe, the Nutrition and Compliance Specialist at DCP Public Schools (DCPS) said that when students are involved in the entire process, they’re more willing to try foods like fruits and vegetables. “This initiative has created an appreciation and a connection between our students and nutritious food, and it’s evident in our cafeterias on FoodPrint days!”
Farm to school funding is in high demand
But the success of farm to school programs like FoodPrints, which currently operates in 10 DC schools, can come at a price. Rob Jaber, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at DCPS, said he would like to expand the program to serve all DC students, and to do that, he needs resources. Since the “heat and serve” model became a staple of school food service, many schools lack the equipment and kitchen skills needed to start making food from scratch again.
Jaber hopes that DCPS will soon be the recipient of a USDA Farm to School grant, one of the most sought-after funding sources for districts looking to adopt or expand food-based curriculum. The USDA Farm to School Grant Program, established in 2010, provides $5 million annually to fund training, planning, equipment, gardens, education, and other operational costs for farm to school programs nationwide. While that may seem like a lot, it meets only a fraction of the need demonstrated by schools. To date, 365 grants totaling $25 million have been awarded out of more than 1,600 applications requesting more than $120 million. This means that, on average, only one in five applications receives funding.
DC Central Kitchen, a community kitchen and job training program providing meals to 12 schools in the district, was awarded a grant back in 2012. Theresa Myers, DC Central Kitchen’s Foundation and Government Relations Manager, explained how their food service capacity flourished with the grant. The organization received $100,000 to purchase new equipment and hire additional staff, and increased their processing and storage capacity by nearly a third as a result. DC Central Kitchen now purchases over $350,000 in local foods from 30 regional farmers each year, which means that about half of every tray of food served in these schools is local.
What’s happening in DC Public Schools is a microcosm, explained Maximilian Merrill, National Farm to School Network Policy Director. “This is a great model of what’s going on across the country.”
A farm bill for farm to school
Not far from the garden, senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) and representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) are also thinking about how to support successful farm to school programs around the country. On September 6th, they introduced the Farm to School Act of 2017, which would increase annual funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program from $5 million to $15 million; make the grants more accessible to a broader range of childcare settings and populations, including early child care, summer food service, after school programs, and tribal schools; and help beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers sell more of their produce through farm to school programs.
While National Farm to School Month is almost over (until next year), the farm bill is just getting started. To show your support for farm to school programs, you can sign on to this letter of support written by the National Farm to School Network endorsing the Farm to School Act of 2017. (You can also sign on behalf of an organization.)
Increasing the funding available for programs like FoodPrints by threefold means triple the opportunities for education and engagement, triple the economic benefit, and triple the happy and healthy kids. If that doesn’t water your eyes, I don’t know what will.
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