by Dan Doeing, Agricultural Educator, Urbana High School
I’m willing to admit that I don’t often think about where my food is grown. Even as the agricultural educator and FFA advisor at Urbana High School, considering where food is grown and how it got to my plate is typically not my first thought going into a meal. And yet, the farm-to-fork process remains a common theme within my lessons. I am reminded that even those with connections to production agriculture can take food for granted at times, let alone those of us who aren’t directly involved in growing food products (like many of my students).
Students that I typically encounter won’t care too much about the food they are eating, other than if it tastes good of course. While there may be a salad bar on the school lunch line, the average student rarely takes a healthy option unless there is a dip or dressing alongside.
I’m curious how we can spark change here on a larger scale. A Farm-to-School (F2S) program could be one solution – a program that can take the shape of whatever the school or larger community it serves agrees on. Through this program, food served at school could also be grown at school, by students for students. It could be a school meal that includes fresh foods from local farms, like seasonal apples or fresh sweet corn. It can exist at any scale – but it will ultimately take an entire connected city ideology, working together to make it happen.
In July 2020, Sola Gratia Farm in Urbana and the Champaign-Urbana (CU) Public Health District collaborated to receive a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant. The “twin cities” of Champaign and Urbana have very different school food service programs, but both are serving schools with a high proportion of children who are eligible for free or reduced price meals, averaging 57% between the two districts. Sola Gratia Farm and CU Public Health District have worked to coordinate a comprehensive F2S Program in which:
- All students will have the opportunity to participate in a sustainable farm to school program that is inclusive of a diverse community.
- School meals and snacks will include locally sourced ingredients that contribute equitably not only to food security and quality for all students, but also promote long-term healthy lifestyle habits.
- The Urbana School District Farm to School Program will foster the growth of a connected, engaged, healthy, thriving community, and will be both mutually supportive and mutually beneficial to all participants in the local food system.
The Leadership Team established a Steering Committee of over 50 individuals who have an interest or role to play in the success of this program becoming solidified, so that it will continue to thrive over time despite any potential turnover in employment. Members of the committee include administrators, food service staff, central office staff, teachers, students, parents, local producers, distributors, and community members. The F2S Steering Committee established goals and a detailed action plan to direct this work, breaking the team into three sub-committees for a stronger focus – Curriculum, School Gardens, and Procurement. This summer, the Leadership Team also enrolled a few members (including myself) into the Illinois Farm to School Institute, an online conference with resources to collaborate, learn, and connect the many ways this program can take shape within our community.
In my role, I have been able to harness the opportunities that come with managing school growing spaces to teach students the methods and importance of growing your own food, healthy eating habits, and the evolving sciences and career opportunities within production agriculture. Some of my previous students have had incredible accomplishments through our school growing spaces. Whether showing their school-grown vegetables at the State Fair, restructuring the systems at their local farmer’s market to become more equitable, or conducting garden-focused Agriscience Fair experiments, these students have a desire to do more.
At Urbana High School, F2S coordinators, grounds crew, students, and volunteers helped often as we re-established the school gardens this past spring. We created more community visibility by moving the raised garden beds to a high-traffic area of the school grounds, refilled them with quality compost, and mulched around the beds with local donations from the Landscape Recycling Center in Urbana and Rice Tree Service from Fisher. While access to running water remains a barrier, the grounds crew built a rain catch system to provide water when we may not have time to string the 300’ of hose together to reach the water spigot attached to the UHS building nearby. After many hours of planting seeds, spreading mulch and soil, weeding, watering, and now harvesting, we can be proud of the hard work as it begins to pay off.
The education behind a F2S program doesn’t have to start and stop with the agriculture department. Family and Consumer Science courses can benefit from bringing students to the garden to learn about the production of food and use produce grown right on school grounds for cooking lessons. Art courses can be employed to create aesthetically pleasing and purposeful garden spaces. Industrial Technology courses may help construct additional garden beds or other infrastructure. There are incredible applications for tangible learning beyond my own agricultural curriculum.
Typically, summer would be the hardest time for teachers to manage the upkeep required of these garden spaces. At the high school, we can recruit students to work over summer in different capacities. Elementary schools (where many garden spaces exist) show large promise of ways to incorporate various degrees of hands-on learning into a classroom curriculum but can struggle when finding ways (or people) to properly ensure a garden is ready for students when they return to school in the fall. While there are many barriers that can exist in situations like this, solutions can be found when there is a team of strong players in the school and community who demand that their children’s school meals are not just adequate, but actually exceed nutrition expectations.
Whether you are a farmer who wants to set up a contract with your local school food service department, or can help navigate logistical barriers through some other role, hopefully you too can find the benefit in making some positive changes to the students in your community and can help create something that people can truly look forward to and be proud of all at once. If you are interested in becoming involved or learning more about what a Farm to School program can look like in your community, gather your team of all-stars to spark growth for years to come!