Farm to School: Cultivating Healthy Kids and Communities

By BARBARA CERVONE, May 2023, Ashland

“Are you ready for a scavenger hunt,” farm-to-school educator Meghan Murphy asks the 3rd graders in her tow. “Here’s some of what we’re looking for: a seedling, a bird nest, an insect pollinating flowers, a plant that looks like it lived all winter, an edible flower, a weed.”

Along with their teacher, the students have come to the ten-acre SOU Farm this May morning to explore the fields and harvest the first crops of spring. A partnership between their school, Mae Richardson Elementary School in Central Point, and the nonprofit Rogue Valley Farm to School makes their visit possible.

The group quickly comes upon a pair of ladybugs nestled in an artichoke plant. “Are ladybugs pollinators?” Murphy, who has a Masters in Nutrition, asks. (They are.)

“And what’s that over there?” she continues, pointing to a tall, spindly plant emerging from the soil. There are no guesses. “It’s an asparagus,” she says. “What part do we eat, the root or the stem?” A chorus answers back: “The stem!”

The hunt continues. “Can anyone find a worm?” A minute later, eight-year-old Anthony extracts a worm from a compost pile where he’s been digging. A plant that lives through the winter? “An apple tree,” Harper answers.

In time, the group reaches three beehives coming to life under a warming sun. “You always want to move slowly and calmly around bees,” Murphy cautions.  When she points out the female bees returning to the hives with nectar, she notes how they often “shake their booty,” using their body to relay directions to other females seeking nectar. Spontaneously, the boys in the group line up and offer their own version of the “bee dance.”

Meanwhile, another team of students sets out to harvest. Some of the  Farm’s fields have yet to be planted in this unseasonably cold spring, but the hoop house has started to deliver. “It sure is hot in here,” Anya says.

The group studies two rows of leafy greens. “What do we have growing here?” Marissa Defazio, an SOU student educator, asks. “Spinach!” two students shout at once. “How about if everyone collects five big spinach leaves and puts them in the basket closest to you?” Marissa gives some harvesting directions. Look for the biggest leaf possible. Take your two pinching fingers and go to the very base of the plant, gently bending the stem and plucking it off.”

Baskets full, the group moves onto a row of radishes, looking for radishes that are big and red. “Not that one, it’s a juvenile,” one boy warns his friend.

Back at home base a third group of students, a “kitchen crew,” is mastering the fine art of chopping vegetables—in this case, onions. Anna Boesch from Wandering Roots Farm in Gold Hill demonstrates the “bear claw” technique.  “Curl all the fingers and the thumb of your non-knife hand like you’re imitating an angry bear. Keep this shape and your knife touching the  cutting board. Rest the tips of your fingers on top of whatever you’re about to cut. Grip the knife with the other hand and use a rocking motion to start chopping.”

Per tradition, these Rogue Valley Farm to School visits end with a meal prepared on the spot, which includes the day’s harvest along with other locally sourced food. Today’s menu features tacos with bean and cheese (donated by Rogue Creamery in Central Point) and spinach and radish salad.

By now the students have each had a chance to scavenge, harvest, and chop. As they wait for lunch at picnic tables under a stand of trees, Meghan Murphy tells the students:

“You’ve worked so hard to prepare this meal that you should definitely give everything a try, even if you’ve never eaten it before. You have to be brave. If you try it and don’t like it, you can simply say ‘it’s not for me.’ You don’t have to finish anything. But we don’t yuck somebody else’s yum.”

“Bon appétit, let’s eat,” Murphy says.

“Are there enough tacos for thirds?” several students wonder as the meal winds down.

 Rogue Valley Farm to School

Started in 2001, Rogue Valley Farm to School (RVF2S) is part of a national network that connects schools, local farmers, and communities, cultivating healthy kids and local economies alike.

“It’s a win-win,” says Rebecca Slosberg, RVF2S co-executive director.

The national Farm to School movement includes  some 70,000 schools in 46 states. In Oregon, 25 school districts and community partners, supported by $10.2 million in state funding, currently participate.

“I think they want us to learn to like vegetables, like spinach” one third-grader suggested as she explored the Farm at SOU.

Launched in 2018, RVF2S’s Digging Deeper School Partnership plows additional ground. Not only do students gain access to healthy, local foods, but they also gain educational opportunities that include weekly classes — taught by a member of the RVF2S staff — about living and eating healthy, school gardens, cooking lessons, and farms visits, like the one at SOU. Currently three elementary schools in in the Talent-Phoenix School District and five in Central Point are part of the Digging Deeper program. More than 1,200 students have participated in farm field trips.

Each month, school-based educators also serve samples of a local, seasonal fruit or vegetable to students in their own cafeteria. After sampling, students vote on what they thought about the new foods.

In 2021 – 2022, RVF2S added a new component: composting. At two Phoenix and Talent elementary schools, students now separate their food and vegetable scraps (save meat) from the rest of their lunch trash. Rogue Produce’s Community Compost picks up the scrap bins and delivers them to Evers Ridge Farm to be composted in their worm bins. The resulting nutrient-rich compost finds its way back to the gardens students tend at their schools.

Building a culture of health

 Is RVF2S having an impact?

“Everything we do is about building a culture of health, about forging relationships and connections around growing food,” says co-executive director Slosberg. The impact of today’s field trip may not be obvious right away, she notes, “but somehow it’s percolating. Years later students may remember the time when they harvested beets and turned them into in a fresh salad.”

Mental health is part of the equation. “Being outside in a garden where things are alive and growing, working together to tend something that is living … what could be healthier?”

Mae Richardson Elementary School teacher Melissa Flanagan, who accompanied her students on the SOU Farm visit last week, would concur. When students later reflect on the experience, participating teachers report, they are likely to talk about the feeling of freedom they felt exploring the fields or sharing a meal that included the day’s harvest.

“There are so many reasons RVF2S stands out,” Wandering Roots’ farmer Anna Boesch says. “It is super important to show kids where and how food is grown, how easy it is to grow, the difference in taste when it’s fresh, the importance of making a food from scratch, of trying new vegetables and new foods, of learning new kitchen skills,” she says.  “The list goes on and on.”

The economic benefits are real, too. A recent study by the nonprofit Ecotrust found that for every dollar allocated through Oregon’s Farm to School program for procurement of Oregon grown and processed foods, two dollars of economic activity is generated in the local economy.

What’s for lunch?

Locally and nationally, the farm to school movement has another goal: bringing fresher and healthier foods to the cafeteria lunch table.

“If I won the lottery tomorrow, all of my efforts would go into bettering the health of our children,” says Amber Fry, Project Manager at Fry Family Farm and a member of the RVF2S board of directors. Re-visioning school lunches would be part of her campaign.

Originally developed as a way to ensure that students were adequately nourished, particularly in times of war, the National School Lunch Act signed in 1946 by President Harry Truman delicately knit together the interests of agriculture, educators, food safety experts, and nutritionists. Every year since, Congress has reauthorized the School Lunch Act as part of the annual Farm Bill.

The concept of farm to school entered this mix in the mid-1990s. Where past school lunches aimed to increase caloric intake for malnourished children — a formula that gave rise to cafeteria trays filled with fast food — farm to school would add fresher, healthier foods and create new markets for small-scale farmers. It would be a win for both students and farmers.

“Food has evolved so much in the 75 years since we started school lunches, but the lunches themselves are unchanged,” Fry explains. “We talk about healthy food and healthy food choices, then you see the corn dogs and sloppy joes and you ask, “Why are we still serving this?’”

The hurdles to changing school lunch menus are steep. Most cafeterias are set up for warming prepackaged foods and not making meals from scratch. Kitchen staff have little prep time and training, plus they lack equipment, even though there are special grant funds that would support these investments. The large companies that provide the prepackaged meals have little incentive to provide more updated choices or expand their fruit and vegetable offerings.

To be sure, procurement when it comes to sourcing and providing a predictable stream of local produce is complicated. Amber Fry has taken on this challenge with RVF2S, imagining building a model with one of the partner schools that would include not only the logistics of delivering local fruits and vegetables but also experimenting with new lunch menus — as simple as putting fresh vegetables on pizza.

“We can do so much better,” she says.

Best day ever                                                                                                 

 In June, the RVF2S visits to the Farm at SOU and Hanley Farm in Central Point  — which incorporate students from preschool through 5th grad — will end, starting up again in the fall.

There is a magic to these visits, most of all for students who have never stepped foot on a farm: the chance to hunt for mushrooms, dig in the soil, eat an edible flower, watch ladybugs on an artichoke plant, see nature burst in the spring and fade by fall’s end, smell sage and lavender.

“This was the best day ever,” a student told me as he headed to the bus that would take him back to school that bright May morning. “As for the bees, they rule!”

 Note:  Turnup the Beet! Celebrate Summer with The Brothers Reed, artisan pizza, beer/wine and a rousing raffle, while supporting Rogue Valley Farm to School. June 25, 4 – 8 pm, Fry Family Farm. ORDER TICKETS

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