Arkansas students at Jonesboro Health, Wellness and Environmental Studies magnet school are finding some extra veggies on their lunch trays these days that they can be especially excited about. The school currently has three gardens where students tend to everything from tomatoes and lettuce to radishes and herbs, that they later harvest and get to eat. “I really like the oregano we have and getting to watch it grow,” Layla Sanders, a fourth-grader said. The school is one of a growing number that has started growing and serving its own food.
With October being national Farm to School month, it’s a perfect opportunity to look at the perks of these programs that are steadily growing in schools across the United States. They function both as a way to educate students about everything from science and agriculture to food prep and healthy eating.
“Our objective is to integrate the greenhouse and garden into our school culture and into what the kids are learning in the classroom,” Whitney Ciancetta, the greenhouse coordinator at Trenton Elementary in Trenton, Maine said. Ciancetta said that since the program started a year ago, teachers and cafeteria staff have noticed that the students are eating more vegetables. Whether that’s because the homegrown veggies taste better or because the students are just extra proud of their harvest is up for debate, but Ciancetta sees any program that a second-grader excited about kale as a good thing.
A variety of crops including cucumbers, carrots, onions, cabbages, potatoes and peppers are grown in the greenhouse that was designed with the help of seventh-graders last year to maximize growing space. The school has begun working with FoodCorps, a branch of the AmeriCorps national service program to educate students on healthy eating and regularly has a monthly “taste test” with students of their crops.
The gardens at Trenton Elementary and Jonesoboro HWES are just two of more than 7,000 school garden programs, according to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census. The gardens don’t simply provide a space for kids to learn about local insects and plant life while developing a green thumb and enjoying a few strawberries at snack time, but help to lay the groundwork for healthy eating into adulthood. Farm to school programs result in children developing a willingness to try new foods and an increase of 44.2 percent of students eating more fruits and vegetables, according to Farm to School Network, a networking hub that works to educate on the benefits of school gardens.
In addition to more kids eating fruits and veggies at school, roughly 22 percent of school districts with school gardens also server their crops in summer food programs. Often times, these school farms function as farm to summer vacation programs to help keep kids active and learning throughout the summer months.
To learn about establishing a farm to school program visit the National Farm to School Network’s resources here.