We are currently raising a generation of children who are largely disconnected from how food is made, many of them unable to identify fruits and vegetables and most of them unclear that food comes from somewhere other than “the supermarket.”
There are many reasons to engage children in growing, harvesting and cooking food. This generation of children also struggles with diet-related diseases and obesity; and while no one has yet cracked the code on how to reverse these trends, some studies have indicated that food literacy, healthy school lunches 1 and building healthy habits early on can make a difference for children’s health. 2
Food insecurity, malnutrition, obesity and other diet-related diseases are becoming increasingly common in the United States, for children and adults. One in six children in this country struggles with food security, while it is estimated that one in five is obese; these apparently opposite conditions (both linked to poverty) stem from a lack of access to healthy food and a lack of food literacy. Engaging children in garden education at school, and introducing fresh, healthy and sometimes local food as part of their school meals gives them daily access to healthy food, a chance to build healthy eating habits for the future, and knowledge about where their food comes from, which will help them become better stewards of the land.
Farm to school brings healthy, local food into schools, creating programming around food that helps children understand where their food comes from and gets them excited to eat healthy, local food. It has the added, important benefit of bolstering local food economies.
Farm to school programs can include hands-on learning through gardening and cooking lessons, serving local food in the cafeteria, visits from farmers and field trips to farms. This can happen through the dedication of a school principal or group of teachers, through the hard work of parent volunteers and/or can be facilitated through local programs — like Growing Healthy Waves in Tupelo, Mississippi — or the national program, FoodCorps, which partners with local schools and organizations to place AmeriCorps service members in schools to dedicate their time to this work.
Farm to school programs have proliferated in the past 10 years. In 2009, the USDA even added an official Farm to School staff to assist schools and communities in establishing these programs. They took a census of schools in 2015 and found that 42 percent of schools were doing farm to school activities of some kind. 3
School gardens can be anything from a windowsill box, to a few containers in a side alley, to a full garden in an unused courtyard space or field. By planning, planting and harvesting edible gardens, students can learn everything from math and science, to environmental studies, to nutrition. Gardens can easily be integrated into curriculum and with a little creativity can be used nearly year-round, even in colder climates.
The benefits of having a school garden include increased fruit and vegetable consumption by students, 4 increased appreciation for and understanding of the natural world, 5 improved academic performance 6 and a way to provide an engaging hands-on learning environment for students who thrive outside of a chair and desk environment.
School gardens work best when they are integrated into academic work and are most sustainable over the long term when many different stakeholders (including the school’s principal) at a school are invested in their existence and upkeep. School gardens are successful as collaborative projects; when responsibility for the garden is shouldered by a single teacher (or parent) alone, they typically fall into disuse.
There are some schools where gardens have become such an integral part of the programming that school produce is even served in the cafeteria, as a featured item on the salad bar or as part of a meal. Many people are familiar with the gold standard for school gardens: Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard Project, which had its first campus in Berkeley, California. In this model, the gardens and kitchen are hands-on, interactive classrooms for all academic subjects, and there’s a “sustainable, delicious and free lunch for every student.”
Getting local food into the cafeteria can be a challenge, depending on the resources of a school or district, but there are many rewards for both students and local farms. When local, healthy food is celebrated — with signs, tasting tables, etc. — and served in delicious ways, students get excited about the food and are more likely to try it. And farmers have new markets to tap into for regular orders.
School food programs in US public schools are all structured differently, a patchwork of different models (and different kitchen types). They are all funded and regulated by the National School Lunch Program, which is legislated by the Farm Bill. This means that schools have a fixed amount of money to spend on each meal for each child, and a set of nutritional guidelines they must follow. The financial and nutritional parameters for these meals mean that there isn’t always a lot of flexibility, but there are many states, districts and schools around the country who are doing incredibly inspiring work to get healthy, local food into school lunch.
Oregon, for example, has been a leader in farm to school, with their state department of agriculture helping to get a lot of Oregon-produced foods — including everything from berries to dairy to nuts to seafood — into school lunch. In addition, the Oregon State Legislature has allocated nearly $10.4 million to farm to school and school gardens. 7 New York State made headlines in January 2018 when it dedicated $1 million to 12 farm to school programs in the state. New initiatives like the Good Food Purchasing Program are helping cities coordinate institutional purchasing to provide healthier food for students and fuel the local economy with local purchases.
Other groups are working with young people — using gardens and small farms as classrooms where youth can learn about food and the food system and a host of other lessons. These programs, often in urban areas, sometimes provide employment for middle and high schoolers and teach critical thinking, job skills, leadership skills, public speaking and other lessons alongside the food and farm work. East New York Farms! and the Youth Farm are similar yet unique examples in their own right, both in Brooklyn, New York. EarthDance, in Ferguson, Missouri; Food, What?!, in Santa Cruz, California; and Cultivating Community, in Portland, Maine, do similar work in other cities.
Rural youth are not necessarily any more knowledgeable about farms than their urban counterparts, and so programs like Seeds of Solidarity operate in the country, while The Food Project in Massachusetts runs programs bringing together urban and rural youth around food and farming.
Whether you’re a principal, a teacher or a parent, there are resources available to help you get involved with farm to school. You can always connect to others in your region to find out about their successes and strategies by looking at the National Farm to School Network or find many different resources for students, teachers or parents at The Center for Ecoliteracy’s website.
You can also get specific tips and resources to: