Students across the United States are learning how food gets from the farm to their tables thanks to the national Patrick Leahy Farm to School program that brings agriculture into the classroom.
And, sometimes, it takes the classroom—and students—to agriculture.
For instance, students at Garibaldi Elementary School in Garibaldi, Oregon, visited Oregon Seaweed, a seaweed farm at the Port of Garibaldi, a 10-minute walk from their school. They even tried a sample of a salty reddish-brown sea vegetable called dulse.
Brooke Hieserich laughs when asked what the children thought of the tasting.
“The grade school students were more receptive, but they were all definitely intrigued,” says Brooke, the Farm to School education coordinator for Food Roots, which serves three school districts in Oregon’s Tillamook County.
According to the National Farm to School Network, more than 67,000 schools—67% nationwide—participate in programs connecting nearly 43 million children to local food systems.
Farm to School is a three-part approach, says Ariel Agenbroad, an extension educator who focuses on community food systems and small farms for the University of Idaho Extension. The approach includes procurement of local products, education to learn where food comes from and learning about growing food.
The national program was renamed in March 2023 to honor Patrick Leahy, a retired senator from Vermont who was a champion of the Farm to School initiative, which started in his state. CoBank—one of the largest private providers of credit to the rural economy—is one of the program’s sponsors.
Expanding Young Palates
In Tillamook County, Brooke and the Farm to School education team reach out to local producers through Food Roots Marketplace to support the tasting program in schools.
“We work with our local farmers to provide a sample,” Brooke says. “Our tasting program is really special. It creates a classroom out of the cafeteria.”
A local beekeeper visited Tillamook Junior High School, and Nestucca Valley K-8 School students sampled cheddar from nearby Nestucca Bay Creamery.
Brooke encourages everyone to respect each other during these tastings with a simple phrase: “Don’t yuck my yum.”
“We talk about how people have different tastes,” she says.
Food Roots helps establish school gardens, and Brooke provides garden-based instruction for the various grade levels.
“I believe kids are more likely to try—and like—new foods that they help grow,” she says.
The Tillamook program has completed work on a school garden hoop house, with help from grants, to create a year-round growing season that coincides better with the school year.
“[They are] following the seed all the way to their plate,” Brooke says.
Four years ago, Casey Hallgarth learned about the Farm to School program at a conference. He brought back the idea to the agriculture teacher at Prairie City Schools, where he is the superintendent.
The idea, Casey thought, would fit perfectly with the rural school in Eastern Oregon.
“We’re a big ag-based school,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for the kids.”
Each year, the school applies for a Farm to School grant through the Oregon Department of Education, which pays for a program coordinator and special projects.
The first year, the school raised one steer and one pig.
Now students help raise two steers and two pigs, collect eggs from about 40 chickens, and plant produce in the school garden.
The curriculum includes two 45-minute sessions a week for children to learn more about food production. The youngsters, Casey says, are more likely to join the 4-H program when they enter fourth grade.
“Our 4-H numbers have doubled, and we’ve seen a big increase in our FFA as well,” he says.
Prairie City, with a population of
848 in the 2021 census, has 275 students from preschool to grade 12.
The animals are bought from local ranchers, then raised at the school until processed in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified facility. Then, the meat is used for meals in the cafeteria.
“The cooks do a great job,” Casey says.
This coming year, students will help raise turkeys for the school’s Thanksgiving feast.
“They understand that we’re raising the animals for food,” Casey says.
Goats are kept around for fun, and the babies often visit the classroom—kids greeting kids.
Sustainable Living Center Crosses State Lines
Staff members at Sustainable Living Center in Walla Walla, Washington, span state lines for multiple Farm to School programs impacting thousands of students.
Walla Walla is in southeastern Washington, just north of the Oregon border. In 2019, the Walla Walla Valley Farm to School program merged with Sustainable Living Center to bring garden-based education to local schools, as well as the Children’s Home Society of Washington, the Juvenile Justice Center and an Americans With Disabilities Act-accessible garden at Walla Walla Senior Center.
The Farm to School program staff includes five garden educators, an education coordinator and two Whitman College interns.
In addition to four schools in Walla Walla, SLC runs Farm to School programs across the Oregon border: three gardens in Milton-Freewater and one in Athena.
Executive Director Erendira Cruz says one challenge for Farm to School programs is the common misconception that because school is not in session in the summer, students miss the main growing season.
“In fact, the garden is an ideal learning space year-round,” she says.
Some crops—potatoes and tomatoes, for example—are perfect for planting in the spring, when school is in session and students can help, and harvesting in the fall, when students return and can assist in the garden. Garlic is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, allowing the students to be involved during regular school hours.
Some seeds grow so quickly that it’s easy to go from seed to plate.
“We make salads three weeks from germination to harvest,” Erendira says.
The Farm to School programs feature taste tests from local growers’ crops, such as asparagus, and children have had the chance to grind wheat to use in recipes. Other activities include a farm visit to a local producer who runs a farm stand called Welcome Table Farm.
The students also have grown popcorn.
“You put the whole cob in the microwave, and it pops on the cob,” Erendira says.
Building Farm to School Programs
In 2022, the Plumas Unified School District in northeastern California received two grants from the California Department of Food and Agriculture to build a Farm to School program. The Producer Grant is designed to engage students in farm-based programming and increase fruit and vegetable production for cafeterias. The School Partnership Grant supports collaboration with regional food producers to increase year-round access to locally sourced food.
Although the program will ramp up for the 2023-24 school year, this summer brought local fruit and vegetables into the school kitchen for summer meals.
“We served strawberries and raw snap peas in June,” says Tracy Darue, nutrition services director. “They were a huge hit.”
In mid-July, the school served raw zucchini and yellow squash.
“These weren’t quite as popular,” Tracy says.
Although not every offering is a hit with students, Tracy says providing local produce is a big positive for the district.
“Personally, it feels great,” she says. “I like the sustainability aspect—less gas to deliver it, keeping the dollars local. And the quality is far superior to what I get from big vendors.”
Looking ahead, Plumas students will take field trips to see where food is grown and learn how to cook with locally sourced ingredients.
“This project will give students a sense of ownership and pride in their school lunches,” says Cait McCloskey, Farm to School coordinator for the district.
In the past, Farm to School programs in Idaho were successful, but participation declined when coordinators moved on to other jobs.
“Farm to School needs champions to succeed,” says Ariel. “Over the years, we’ve lost some of the early leaders, and that has left us without a lot of statewide support in Idaho.”
But this status is changing. The Idaho Department of Education funded a Farm to School coordinator position in late 2022 and hired Pamela Murray. In her first year on the job, Pamela is creating an advisory council, with members across Idaho who will encourage and support Farm to School programs across the state.
“My focus is how to make it sustainable and boost relationships between schools and the community,” Pamela says.
She is working with Idaho Preferred, an Idaho State Department of Agriculture program that identifies and promotes agricultural products grown in Idaho.
“When you buy local food, you’re supporting the local economy,” Pamela says.
Despite a lack of statewide coordination in recent years, Ariel says Farm to School programs have continued around Idaho. The extension has focused on Farm to Early Care and Education in south central Idaho, which brings local produce into preschools and child care centers, and encourages growing a garden so young children can learn about growing—and eating—food.
“You’re getting them when they’re establishing food habits,” she says.
At one preschool, she was surprised to learn the youngsters really liked microgreens, which are harvested at the seedling stage of a plant, such as broccoli, radish and sunflowers.
“Microgreens were a huge hit,” Ariel says. “They looked like tiny plants and were spicy.”