Learning by Taste

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South Whidbey School District Farm and Gardens

STORY BY ELLEN GRAY PHOTOS BY CARY PETERSON

It is easy to say that change is too difficult. But South Whidbey dug in — into the soil, that is.

It is 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday and 25 fourth-graders file out the door. As they crest the hill, their line disintegrates, and a gaggle of kids race down the hill toward the school farm, shouting: Can I eat the kale today? Can I try that spicy mustard stuff you had last week?

Did our seeds sprout yet?

kids in the farmThe kids weave through the spinach, lettuces, and kales, eventually settling around the pea beds. This week, the peas have sprouted, and the kids can’t contain their excitement. Finally, they can build their pea trellis. After engineering and constructing trellis models in their classrooms, the students really want to build the real thing.

Cary Peterson, South Whidbey School District Farm and Gardens program coordinator, and her volunteers help the kids find the bamboo stakes and string. Cary reminds them about construction principles and that their trellis has to be strong enough to support the peas as they grow, because everyone wants to eat garden-grown peas in the school lunch.

All students in South Whidbey Elementary School spend at least 45 minutes every other week at the farm, learning how to grow and taste food. Taste? Don’t kids know how to taste? Cary knows that many kids have never tasted fresh food, so it is critical that her kids “nibble” on the farm.

“Eating fresh, garden-grown vegetables with flavors that astound has transformed their relationship with food and is driving change in the school lunches,” she says. “A child’s world is often disconnected from nature. Hands-on collaborative learning and eating at the farm creates connections between the brains, hearts, and bellies of the children.”

South Whidbey kids are also learning what affects taste: soil, sun, water, and nutrients. How do plants grow? When is a vegetable ready for harvest? What makes soil healthy? In collaboration with Jude Bierman, an early-childhood education teacher, and several classroom teachers, Cary developed a farm-based curriculum that meets Washington’s Next Generation Science standards. The curriculum is gradespecific, but eating fresh vegetables from the garden is a constant.

First-graders learn about soil and how to plant seeds. Second-graders dissect a pea pod to learn about plant structure. Third-graders write about growing kale, lettuce, spinach, and peas. Fourth-graders map the farm and design pea trellises. Fifth-graders conduct plant-growth experiments with light, nutrition, water, and temperature.

This all happens at the South Whidbey School District’s half-acre farm, where food is grown for students, the community, and, most impressively, sold to Chartwells, the renowned school-food service company. Chartwells is owned by Compass Group PLC, a British multinational contract food-service company with operations in more than 50 countries. It is the largest food-service company in the world, serving 4 billion meals a year and 2.6 million school lunches daily in the U.S.

How did South Whidbey do this?

more kids in the farmInitially, Chartwells was not willing to serve school-grown produce, but Cary was determined. She discovered a Chartwells school-garden guide. As she read the protocols in the guide, Cary’s heart sank. She knew the protocols were not achievable and would have to be changed if her school-grown produce was ever going to be served in Chartwells cafeterias.

So Cary diplomatically and persistently nudged this multibillion-dollar corporation. In November 2013, modified protocols were approved, and on May 22, 2014, the South Whidbey School District and Chartwells signed a Hold-Harmless liability agreement. The next day, school-grown mixed-salad greens were served in the Chartwells salad bar, and South Whidbey became the first school district in the nation to implement the new Chartwells protocols.

After that success, Cary wanted to grow more food. Chris Korrow, a local farmer, brought his tractor to the school and tilled a little-used area behind the South Whidbey Academy, adjacent to the elementary school. Two years, 60 cubic yards of compost, and thousands of student, teacher, and community volunteer hours later, the farm is thriving. This past year, the farm sold 1,000 pounds of fresh salad greens to Chartwells, provided 1,000 pounds of produce for students to eat at the farm, donated 1,250 pounds of fresh produce to the Good Cheer Food Bank and Whidbey Island Nourishes, and donated 600 pounds of produce for farm and school community events. Farm to school can be frustratingly hard, perhaps because we think it should be easier. Some of us remember when meals were cooked in schools, and smells of baking rolls wafting through the hallways signaled that lunch was ready. But now, many schools thaw and re-heat instead of cooking. In our quest for cost efficiency, school meals have become highly processed. Bags of ready-to-serve, pelletized carrots are opened; frozen, cooked chicken is thawed and warmed; cheese is poured from cans.

Budgets have been cut, staff hours shortened, and many kitchens have gotten rid of the equipment needed to chop, mix, and cook. Processed foods have become the norm, and a generation of sick kids is the result. Heart disease, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases in children are epidemic. This is the first generation that is not expected to live as long as their parents.

Farm-to-school barriers are plenty. The federal lunch reimbursement is only $3.07. Local farmers have to compete with internationally sourced foods or “free” USDA commodity foods. Ever-evolving food-safety regulations are confusing. Some farms deliver, some don’t. Some types of food aren’t available when school is in session. There isn’t time to work with so many different farmers. It is easier to work with just one food-service company. Some school menus call for strawberries in January.

It is easy to say that change is too difficult.

But South Whidbey dug in — into the soil, that is. They turned an unused play field into a farm. Cary volunteered more than 1,200 hours her first year. The next year, the community galvanized and raised funds from individuals, grants, and the Goose Community Grocer to pay her. Jo Moccia, South Whidbey school superintendent, said, “If in three years we put together an integrated K–12 program that no one can live without, then the school district will fund it.”

Cary wants a program that inspires healthy eating, connects with nature, and grows food that nourishes not just the students but also the community. Principal Jeff Cravy knows the program is having a positive impact in classrooms, the cafeteria, and the students’ homes. “I am amazed at the dedication of our students to the school farm,” he says. “They quickly discovered that this is not just a science lesson, but an opportunity to get involved in their own learning, to contribute to the school lunch program, and to help our community as a whole.”

Cary didn’t grow up on a farm, and she didn’t have gardening in her background. It started when she fell in love with bicycling and was on the U.S. National Road Racing Team 1977–1979. After a successful international racing career, she returned to the States and embarked on a 10,000-mile tour on a 3-wheeled recumbent bike, looking for the perfect place to live. She found it in 1989, in a 10-by-12-foot cabin in the woods of South Whidbey Island. There, she discovered gardening and has been growing plants and possibilities ever since.

South Whidbey School District Farm and Gardens is a collaboration of the school district, Good Cheer Food Bank, Whidbey Island Nourishes, Goose Community Grocer, and The Whidbey Institute. The farm is located behind the South Whidbey Academy at 5476 Maxwelton Road in Langley.

In the summer, work parties are held every Tuesday, 9 a.m.– noon, followed by a garden-grown picnic salad. Everyone is invited. Visit whidbeyschoolgardens.wordpress.com for more information or contact Cary Peterson at schoolgardenswhidbey@gmail.com.

Ellen Gray is the executive director of the Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network, chairs the Good Food Coalition, and serves on the Washington State Food Systems Roundtable, a public-private collaborative tasked with setting a 25-year vision for the state’s food system.

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