Picking cherry tomatoes in the school greenhouse

Now is the time for our state to invest in collaborative efforts that bring the education and agriculture sectors together for the benefit of our communities. Support is growing in the state legislature for the CT Grown for CT Kids Program. This bill would fund projects and programs that promote farm to school activities, potentially increasing the economic vitality of local farmers while improving the health and wellness of our children. But what is farm to school?

Joey Listro

Consider how often your child may have participated in farm related activities at school. Maybe your kindergartener took a field trip to pick their own pumpkin or learned that the apples they were served during lunch came from the local orchard. But what about the intentionality of teaching why farms are important and the process of getting that food to their plate? Farm to School programs like CT Grown for CT Kids provide local food to schools while also offering a curriculum that enriches a child’s understanding of farming through experiential learning in school gardens and cafeterias.

To think, it was just a year ago the pandemic shuttered our schools and the dread of a longer term lockdown began to settle in. Yet farmers had no choice but to continue planting on schedule — pandemic or not. For me, I had to keep the dozens of tiny seedlings I had planted with a team of sixth graders just prior to schools closing alive in a 60- foot greenhouse on school grounds.

I remember the eerie feeling of watering the seedlings alone in the greenhouse one morning during the second week of the shutdown. The school parking lot was empty, playground vacant, and the basketball courts had their hoops removed. As I was pulling out the hose to water the peas and spinach plants, I heard the lunch bell ring, ushering what should have been hundreds of students to and from the school cafeteria. The silence, as peaceful as it may seem, brought to life a sad reality. The schoolyard once filled with the noise of kids playing and learning were left vacant in exchange for the digital world.

The pandemic has taught us significant lessons including the critical role the outdoors play in the development of a child. As schools continue supporting the “whole child,” the importance of food, nutrition, and outdoor learning is taking center stage. According to the Farm to School Census, there are just over 100 school gardens in Connecticut, with over half of our schools opting to purchase fruits or vegetables from local farmers at least once during the year.

Outdoor garden classrooms are not a new concept. In fact, they have been used dating as far back as 1811 as a place for children to learn natural sciences and vocational skills. Freidrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten movement brought gardens to life notably claiming that, “Children are like tiny flowers; they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers.” The garden of children, now better known as kindergarten, was also very much a garden of plants. Froebel’s model classroom always included land for children to interact with nature as well as play, plant, nurture, explore, observe and discover.

As the value of this type of work reemerges, so does the need to direct resources to provide farm to school activities throughout our schools. The CT Grown for CT Kids Program, would establish a grant fund for schools and early childcare centers to apply for seed money for schools to begin their journey into farm to school activities.

Neighboring states have seen farm to school funding provide a significant positive impact within their communities.

The Vermont Farm to School Grant Program, now in its 12th year, has supported teachers and food service workers in training programs in preparing local food and adapting broad-based lessons in the classroom. Technical support provided to these schools helped food service directors connect with dozens of Vermont farms for local purchasing. Today, every dollar a Vermont school spends on local food contributes an additional 60 cents to the local economy.

Examples from New York State have demonstrated resounding success from their Farm To School Grants Program. One district used their money to purchase commercial vegetable peelers for processing root vegetables. This allowed them to buy potatoes and carrots directly from local farmers to serve in Albany schools. State funding also helped establish a “Farm-to-School Warehouse” in western New York which alleviated a distribution barrier and significantly increased procurement of New York grown food for 31,290 students across 15 school districts.

CT Grown for CT Kids is an investment in our children and will accelerate the impact farm to school programs have in our rural and urban communities. The trip your kindergartener takes to a local farm for a hayride and to pick their own pumpkin is still important. CT Grown for CT Kids will just take that experience to the next level by connecting two vital segments of our community – agriculture and education.  So the next time your kindergartner comes home from picking a pumpkin, they will know enough to harvest the seeds for growing their own pumpkins next year.

Joey Listro is the Executive Director of New Britain ROOTS.

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