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farm to schoolFresh” and “local” were not adjectives you’’d apply to the school lunches in Minnesota’s Hopkins School District a few years ago. Until 2008, the cafeteria trays were frequently dominated by breaded chicken products that had been previously frozen and shipped from who knows where, with a side of fries.

But that year, district Director for Food Nutrition Services Barb Mechura decided to make some changes, starting with those chicken products. ““We wanted less frozen, more from-scratch food on the menus, so we began by removing the chicken nuggets and patties and replacing them with whole muscle-meat chicken,”” she says. “”One child asked why there was a bone in the chicken—he’’d never seen that before.”

Energized by the success of the chicken switch, Mechura connected with a local farmer named Greg Reynolds, who wanted to find a way to help with the childhood health crisis he kept hearing about, and Mechura began buying fresh produce from his farm. During the first year of the partnership, the Hopkins district served 22,000 pounds of local produce in it’s nine schools.

Suddenly the salad bar was filled with radishes, peppers, melons, and more fruits and vegetables that had been harvested just days earlier, at a farm 40 miles away. The kitchen used the produce to make entrees like stuffed baked potatoes filled with house-made chili, and side dishes like tomato and zucchini sauté. In the years since, Hopkins school district has begun to feature some local cheese, hot dogs made with grass-fed beef, and free-range chicken on their lunch menus, as well as local whole grains in their breakfast oatmeal bar.

Despite initial wariness of the fresher fare, the students now gobble it up, says Mechura. ““I get e-mails from parents saying, ‘’Can you please tell me how they make that squash at my child’’s school? Because my son came home and told me he ate squash——how did you get him to do that?’'”

The New Crop of School Food

We hear so much about how terrible American school lunches are, that you might not realize a big change is afoot in many cafeterias across the country. Called the ““Farm to School”” movement, it aims to get fresh, healthy food into kids’’ tummies, while educating them about where it came from and why that’s important. “”Farm to School is any program that connects schools with locally grown food, both for eating and education purposes,”” says Chelsey Simpson, spokesperson for the National Farm to School Network. “”It can mean sourcing local farm produce for the cafeteria kitchen to using a school garden to educate children about where food comes from.”” Here, how three districts are doing just that.

Sowing Seeds as a Science Class

At Hatch Elementary School in coastal Half Moon Bay, California, Farm to School means that all second- and third-graders plant, tend, and harvest bushels of fresh produce from raised beds as part of their science curriculum. These edible gardening lessons are taught by instructors from a nonproft called the HEAL Project (HEAL stands for Health Environment Agriculture Learning). The students love digging in the dirt, watching seeds they’’ve planted transform into strawberries, peas, and kale— and then snacking on the bounty. Their parents love how the classes expand their children’s palates. “”My kids came home and said, ‘’We ate kale today!’’ and I said, ‘’Who are you and what have you done with my children?'”’ ” jokes Denise Phillips, who serves as president of the board of the HEAL Project. ““I can’’t say they eat kale all the time, but now they definitely understand nutrition and know what’s good for their bodies. They’’re more inclined to reach for an apple or a banana as a snack.””

Because the curriculum includes lessons on nutrition (e.g., how to read a food label) and the environmental impacts of food systems (via field trips to local farms), it meets state science standards, allowing it to be a regular part of the school day and not just an extracurricular activity. Once students “”graduate”” from the program in third grade, many choose to join the Garden Club, a group of fourth- and fifth-graders who help out with the garden and sell its crops at the local farmers’ market, where they pick up valuable basic business skills while raising money for the HEAL Project.

A Locally Sourced Salad Bar

A couple of thousand miles away on the plains of North Dakota, the Valley City School District is doing Farm to School a different way, by spending a chunk of its cafeteria budget at the local farmers’ market. “”I’’m obligated to spend 80 percent of the money with our main vendor, but the rest we can play with, so we started to fill our salad bars with local produce,”” says Susan Milender, R.D., the nutrition services director for the district. Next to the expected carrots and celery, Valley City students will find a leafy green like spinach or Swiss chard along with more exotic choices like kohlrabi. “”I am absolutely surprised at how much the kids eat from the salad bar, even the littlest kids,”” says Milender. “”At our K through 3 school we have a miniature salad bar that the children can reach easily. Surprisingly, they go through tons of cauliflower florets.”

One thing that’s crucial to her district’s uptick in produce intake is the USDA’’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides some schools with funding to educate students about fresh produce. “”We bring snack-size portions of different fruits and vegetables into the classrooms to expose the kids to them,”” says Milender. “”I’’ve brought in whole pineapples and chopped them up, since some kids had only eaten canned before, and purple cauliflower, and things like nectarines that we don’t see a lot of in North Dakota.”” While that produce isn’’t always local, exposing the kids to a wider variety of fruits and veggies leads to more experimentation at lunchtime. “”They see their teachers eating it, and the other kids eating it, and it opens them up,”” she says. ““Since we started the USDA program, our salad bar consumption has gone through the roof.””

Reaping Life Lessons

The Waldorf educational philosophy has prioritized nature education since long before it became trendy, so it’s no surprise that the Los Angeles–—area Highland Hall Waldorf School (which has students from nursery school up through twelfth grade) takes Farm to School to a new level with a full biodynamic farm on campus, including 24 raised beds, a field for row crops, a greenhouse, an orchard of fruit trees, beehives, chickens, and compost piles. Students of all ages work on the farm, learning practical skills like weeding and science lessons like botany, and even organic chemistry (for the older grades) in the process. “”The jobs vary depending on the students’’ ages and interests,”” says Nitza Bernard, the school’s on-staff farmer. “”The fifth grade boys love to chop things down and pull out big weeds, and the younger kids seem to not mind dealing with the compost and manure, so we let them do that.”” The students are proud to bring the fruits of their labor—bags of fresh produce—home to their families.
While the nutrition boost the kids get from eating fresh-picked food is huge, the benefits of the school’s garden program go beyond vitamins and minerals. “”One of our goals is that by graduation our students will be free, independent thinkers who feel capable of making a difference in the world,”” says Lynn Kearn, Highland Hall’s administrative director. ““There is nothing like digging in the dirt, getting your hands dirty, and gathering seeds while harvesting food to make you feel like you’’re capable and have an impact. So there’’s a larger life lesson involved in tending a garden——the larger thing is the ability to effect change in the world.”

It Ain’t Always Easy

While happy stories of wee kids plucking radishes from the earth and biting into them might make Farm to School sound like a no-brainer, the programs often face challenges, especially in the beginning. “When we first removed the chicken nuggets and some other processed food from the cafeterias, we met with a lot of resistance, from kids, teachers, parents, and even administrators,”” says Mechura. ““Our district is pretty diverse socioeconomically and culturally, so it’’s a complex issue because some parents feel they don’’t have access to serve this kind of food at home. Then we have other parents who buy nothing but organic and don’’t understand why we can’’t always buy organic.””

In the face of that early resistance, Mechura says, “”we developed our talking points, stayed on message, and were persistent with our efforts.” “One thing that helped the students warm up to the healthier food: Mechura’’s team gave the cafeteria workers and parent volunteers the tools to become lunchtime “”food coaches”” to guide the students to make good decisions. ““They tell the students, ‘’Your taste buds grow as you do, so even if you didn’’t like something before, you should try it again,’'”” she says. “”Or a line worker might tell a student, ‘’I see you’’re a baseball player, and you need strong bones to play baseball, so you should try these green beans because they have calcium in them.’’ We post one-sentence blurbs like that in the kitchen so that the staff can help educate the students.”” She emphasizes that any Farm to School program is a work in progress, and you don’’t have to do it all at once. “”Each fall we think, What do we want to do next? What less-healthy foods can we take of the menu, and how can we replace them with something better?””

Getting the Youngest Students On Board

The best way to expose preschoolers to farm-fresh fare is with hands-on exposure via a school garden. Taking care of the garden provides sensory-rich fun—and even the most closed-minded chicken nugget lovers are likely to sample cucumbers they grew themselves. “When kids have helped prepare the soil, picked the weeds, and watched the plants grow, they’re much more invested in the harvest of the vegetables,” says Sheila Branagan, who teaches in the nursery school at Highland Hall, in the Los Angeles area.

To start a mini-farm at your child’s pre-school, you don’t need an acre of land—container gardening is easier and brings the plants right to the kids’ level. Plant things that grow above ground (strawberries, lettuce) so kids can see them as they emerge, as well as root veggies (carrots, beets) because kids love pulling them up.

Once your crops are ready, the kids can snack on them raw, with hummus or another dip, or use them as part of a class cooking project. If you’ve got the climate for it, try growing a “pizza garden” of tomatoes and fresh herbs, which you can turn into sauce. At Highland Hall, preschoolers frequently make soups using the garden’s produce. “We make a soup using sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions, then puree it,” says Branagan. “Some of the children won’t touch it in the beginning of the year, then later will have a little mouse nibble or a bird bite, then by the end of the year they’ll have two or three bowls of it.”

Learn more about the Farm to School revolution here.

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