Learning about (and from) farms

Normally the Denver Green School would be full of children playing and learning. Of course, summer vacation puts a damper on this; now there are no students asking for a mint leaf, reaching their hands over the fence between the playground and the school’s farm.

That’s right, the school has a farm.

Meg Caley, co-founder and operations manager of Sprout City Farms, sits at a bench under the only shade on the acre-wide farm with me and Kira Olsen (an intern working on the farm).  They both miss the kids over the fence, and can’t wait for school to begin again in the fall.

A couple of years ago, Sprout City Farms and the Denver Green School (a public pre-K through 8th grade school) teamed up to start the Denver Green School Community Farm. The school had decided that in order to educate their students about the environment, they would make an effort to begin growing their own food. Denver Public Schools (DPS) was supportive of the idea, and offered to lease the land to Sprout City Farms for free and to provide water for the newly installed drip system.

Now organic fruits and vegetables grown just yards away find their way into the salad bar as well as the cooked food offered in the school cafeteria. Sprout City Farms (which runs the farm operations and community outreach) offers whatever produce is available to the kitchen manager, who uses it in DPS-approved recipes and serves it to the students. Meg hopes to get new recipes approved soon through a partnership with DPS Food and Nutrition Services, and students from Johnson & Wales University. “We sure grow a lot of beets,” she says, but DPS currently offers no recipes for them.

The Denver Green School Community Farm is a part of an international movement bringing farms and fresh food into schools. These efforts are motivated by concerns for both the nutrition of children and the health of the environment.

First Lady Michelle Obama has been active in this movement advocating for healthier food in schools. In January she and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the new federal nutrition standards for school food released by the US Department of Agriculture. The new standards require that meals serve less sodium and calories, and provide more produce and whole grains.

Jamie Oliver, an English chef, has been heading a similar movement in England through television, campaigning for hot and nutritious meals in schools. In the US various groups have been working to put more produce and meals-from-scratch on lunch trays. The School Nutrition Association is a non profit in the US working with school nutrition professionals to develop standards that give students the tools for lifelong health and nourishment. This summer Denver hosted their annual conference.

Farm to School initiatives (such as the National Farm to School Network) are working to increase the amount of local produce in school cafeterias while strengthening the local economy and educating children about food. There is an effort to integrate food into the classroom through school gardens, farm field trips, and new curricula about agriculture and nutrition.

For example, at the Denver Green School eating isn’t the only way the students interact with the farm. Teachers work “outdoor learning labs” into their curriculum—whether farm related or not. They count rows of peas in math class, draw plants in art, and of course think about how the world food system compares to their school’s food system.

All of the students are happy to chase bunnies away from the lettuce. They help to plant seeds in the spring, and with the harvest in the fall. Each October, the 6th grade organizes the Harvest Festival, and the 7th grade has plans to build a chicken coop for about 20 chickens that will live on the farm. All of the students are learning more about their food. Meg tells me that “a 6th grader told me her favorite vegetable is a turnip.” Sounds like success to me.

Last year the farm harvested over 6,000 lbs of food. Not all of the produce goes to the school, although the farm is able to meet nearly all of the cafeteria’s produce needs during the fall months from August to October. Some is used in cooking classes, donated to eligible families in the CSA program, and given to local community organizations.

In order to cover the cost of farm operations, the rest of the produce is distributed in a CSA and sold at a farm stand after school. The farm also hosts classes, tours, volunteer days and community events regularly. Directly next to the farm is a Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) and school community garden. Members of the community plant and care for plots, and so does each class at the school.

One of Meg’s favorite things about the community being created is its diversity. Young parents and children from the school come together with elderly community members from the neighborhood. “Here they come together over food at the farm,” she says.

According to Meg, unlike other programs like this, the Denver Green School Community Farm is not using the farm primarily as an educational model. Instead, “we’re growing a lot of food, and educating on the way.”

It looks to be a triumph. The sugar snap peas taste delicious, and the rows are flourishing. The only thing missing is a few kids on the swing set.

Feast Well!                                                                                                                     Maggie Thulson                                                                                                              Denver Food Warrior Summer ’12

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s