by: Kris Schanilec, Co-op Member
Several local school districts are planting gardens in a project led by the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative (FFI). Last fall, FFI adopted the national Farm to School program to pursue its goal of encouraging healthy eating. FFI is leading one of four Iowa chapters of Farm to School, which includes over 2,000 teams in 40 states.
In addition to school gardens, FFI’s chapter targets teacher and food service staff training, field trips to local farms, and coaching of high school students to teach younger peers about local foods.
Participating districts were selected as pilots based on factors such as the potential impact on vulnerable and at-risk youth. Pilot schools receive technical, educational and financial support. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University are major funders.
A team of partners
FFI is an organization that aims to build healthier communities through increased physical activity and access to healthy, local foods. FFI is led by partners Iowa State University (ISU) Extension, and Luther College. Brenda Ranum and Ann Mansfield are co-conveners from the two organizations, respectively.
The Farm to School project itself is coordinated by AmeriCorps volunteers Flannery Cerbin and Rachel Wobeter. Others on the team include ISU Extension specialists Cindy Baumgartner, Teresa Wiemerlsage, and Vanette Grover; Emily Neal, director of Environmental Outreach for Luther College; and Johnice Cross, Coordinator of GROWN Locally. For hands-on planning and planting, FFI has engaged David Cavagnaro of The Pepperfield Project in Decorah.
It’s really about diet
The main goal of the school gardens is self-evident. Cavagnaro describes it as “to maneuver children into a better understanding of healthful food. This is really about diet . . . It will also help transform the food services.”
But as every gardener knows, the intangible benefits are what keep mud on their shoes. “The physical, mental, and spiritual health of anyone gardening—the act itself—is enormously restorative,” says Cavagnaro. (Pepperfield is currently in its second planting year at the Winneshiek Medical Center garden, which harvested over 600 pounds of produce last year.)
Sowing the seeds
Since early this year, the Farm to School team has been meeting with schools to assemble core garden teams, identify garden sites, draw up plans, and select seeds.
Seed Savers Exchange is donating seeds to the schools through its Herman’s Garden program, which gives seeds to non-profit organizations across the country in return for freely sharing their harvest and saving seed for others. Pepperfield is also donating seeds from its collection.
Some garden teams are choosing varieties that match ethnicities in their communities. For example, students in Postville are planting Russian and Central American varieties; the Turkey Valley team has selected several Czech and German seeds. This spring, students have been preparing the ground and starting seeds indoors. In May and June, they will plant outdoors.
Turkey Valley’s team includes a high school horticulture class, and a group of enthusiastic fourth graders and their teacher. Earlier this month, Cavagnaro helped them lay out a garden site by the school, and a local farmer donated manure for mulch. Meanwhile, students planted seeds indoors. The garden will include pumpkins, winter squash, peppers and tomatoes—crops that are relatively easy to grow, are harvested in fall and require little attention.
Students with specific skills are stepping forward. One fourth grader is applying his herb expertise to take the lead on an herb garden. Another student in the high school is planning “hardscaping” projects, including building a wooden tool shed and an arbor with benches.
And then there’s homecoming. The Turkey Valley team is planting potato varieties to match its school colors of red, white and black (All Red, white, and Peruvian Purple). After harvest, food service staff will prepare a homecoming dish infused with school spirit.
The school building itself is part of the plan, as it is uniquely situated with a large, enclosed inner courtyard. This space, protected from deer, is destined for plantings of perennial fruit like apples and raspberries in future years.
In Postville, the need for healthy foods and a strong community is great. The town is still recovering from the 2008 immigration raid of Agriprocessor Inc. In addition, nearly 71 percent of elementary school students receive free or reduced lunch. The high at-risk population in the district is one reason it was selected as a Farm to School pilot.
The Postville garden site is a few blocks from the school in a community garden where thirty-three families already maintain plots. High school teachers have been helping students grow plants, while a well-organized team of teachers and community members are working with third graders to prepare for planting.
To get families involved, the Postville school will hold food-related events this summer—like family picnics and summer markets for the local food bank and day care centers.
Decorah High School has two projects: students will continue to plant and harvest an existing plot in the community garden, and they are establishing a new plot at the east end of the school. Since they plan to use their produce for school lunches next year, they are targeting crops that require little summer maintenance and are easy to grow: potatoes, winter squash, and possibly peppers and tomatoes.
The high school also has a greenhouse. While it’s currently empty, preparations are underway for an indoor hydroponic vegetable project and a vermiculture (worms) project next year.
Across the street at John Cline Elementary, students plan to establish a garden of the colorful kind. Since it is in a shady spot, the garden will be planted with wildflowers and other flowers. Next year, Carrie Lee Elementary and Decorah Middle School will create a new site between their buildings.
In Starmont, students are growing flowers in a green house for a plant sale. And they are planning a vegetable garden through their horticulture and biology classes. North-Winneshiek, while not a Farm to School pilot, is preparing for a ratatouille garden. Students will grow ingredients, make ratatouille, and preserve the dish for use in school lunches next year.
Some Farm to School pilots are focusing their efforts on classroom education. Both Oelwein and Howard-Winneshiek schools are employing cross-age teaching. Since January, high school students have been using lesson folios to educate younger students about a different local food item each month (for example, April was pork and May will be leafy greens).
What about Jamie Oliver?
Healthy foods in schools is not a new idea, despite what one English celebrity chef may have you believe. Farm to School started in 1996 with pilot projects in California such as The Edible Schoolyard led by Alice Waters.
Recently, “healthy food” programs have been spreading like creeping charlie. First Lady Michelle Obama, SlowFood USA, the USDA, state and U.S. legislators are all spearheading initiatives and legislation—some established and some new.
Notably, Obama’s Let’s Move campaign established Partnership for a Healthier America earlier this year. This strategic alliance unites the efforts of many foundations and organizations in the movement to raise healthier children.
Planning for sustainability
According to Cerbin and Wobeter, FFI has purposefully chosen to evolve “organically” over the past two and a half years, without broad campaigns for public and private support.
This has helped the project build a strong grassroots momentum, which will help ensure that it meets the real needs and interests of real people and has staying power. “We want Farm to School to become sustainable,” observes Cerbin.
Wobeter adds that the program’s youth-driven approach is important. “People listen when youth ask for something,” she says. FFI has cultivated youth teams in sixteen high schools.
FFI’s sustainability strategy also involves choosing partners like Luther College and Iowa State University Extension, which already have well established health and fitness initiatives.
Cavagnaro agrees that sustainability will be fueled by support within schools and communities. “Each community will have to evolve its own strategy for sustainability… That will be the toughest challenge: We need to have enthusiastic people coming forward on a regular basis. The national movement behind this at the moment is helpful.”
Farm to School will be expanded to include more schools next year. Meanwhile, there are gardens to plant. “We are heading toward spring planting and have dates on the calendar,” he says. “We’ll be showing [students] how to build bean teepees and deer fences.”
Follow the progress on www.iowafoodandfitness.org