When a farmer at Cold Spring Farm held up a garlic bulb and explained how to grow the plant, one of the 10-year-olds visiting the Colchester farm asked if they could eat it like an apple.

When the farmer showed them how to grow a potato, another kid shouted “I love McDonald’s!”

As the group of Middletown fourth grade students began to garden, one child screamed that he got dirt in his eye, while one of the girls showed off that the garlic plant she was inspecting was healthy. “It’s like a little baby,” she said excitedly.

The Farm to School program, a national and statewide initiative to bring locally produced foods into schools, aims to help students go beyond classroom lessons and learn about what they’re eating in the cafeteria through hands-on experience in school gardens and field trips to nearby farms. It also aims to develop stronger community relationships between local farmers, students and school administrations.

The program first launched in Connecticut in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2016 that partnerships, like the one between FoodCorps and UConn, began to further expand its reach.

By 2018, around 630 schools across the state had participated in serving locally grown food in their cafeterias, feeding up to 315,600 students. The initiative continued to grow during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, the state’s Department of Agriculture began to fund the CT Grown for CT Kids Grant, which provided “up to $25,000 to support farm to school programming in early childhood education centers and K-12 schools,” according to a UConn report.

Dawn Crayco, the Northeast regional policy director for FoodCorps, a nationwide organization that partners with Food to School programs, said the grants were “wildly successful,” in supporting schools, farmers, districts and nonprofits to enter new projects like building school gardens or hosting cooking classes.

“But each time, there were over a million dollars requested. The demand is really out there to grow this,” Crayco said.

Fourth graders from the Farm Hill Elementary and Snow Elementary in Middletown listen to how they will plant the potatoes from Karen Rymsza, a farmer at the Cold Spring Farm in Colchester. Five percent of the produce of Middletown School District comes from the local farm, said Randall Mel, the director of Food and Nutrition at Middletown Public Schools. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

According to UConn’s Food to School report, the USDA gave Connecticut $1.8 million this spring to continue purchasing “locally or regionally grown unprocessed food products, 80% of which must be from Connecticut.”

“We knew early on that we had to really invest in policy because Connecticut had very little policy as it pertained to Farm to School,” said Crayco. “The only thing we had was a state statute that said there would be a Connecticut Grown for Connecticut Kids program and there would be a week in early October that we’d celebrate farmers and schools and the connection between them.”

This legislative session, in a new effort to continue expanding the program, a house bill proposed more funding and a new program to encourage schools to buy locally. House Bill 6842 ultimately merged into Senate Bill 1, which passed both chambers on June 7.

S.B. 1 states that the state will create an incentive program, beginning in 2024, where local boards of education would be reimbursed half of their total expenditures when purchasing Connecticut-grown food, or one-third reimbursements for food purchased from New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine. 

The Department of Agriculture is also given the ability to provide supplemental grants to local school boards for kitchen equipment, developing relationships with school nutrition or farm-to-school consultants and training for processing, preparing or serving local food.

The two-year state budget has allotted $1 million each year for the CT Grown for CT Kids grant program.

Developing relationships with food

One’s relationship with food starts young.

Jessica Stone, a first-generation farmer and Connecticut native, remembers wanting to become a farmer by the time she was 7 years old. 

“I grew up in a family where my mom was single, and she would spend a lot of time trying to go to bulk sales, and fry hoppers and Little Debbie Snack Cake areas is what I called it — and I realized, I didn’t feel well when I ate the food,” Stone said. “My rebellion was food.”

Stone, who said her family had a tight budget as she was growing up and couldn’t afford healthy foods, decided she would take matters into her hands.

A student shows carrot seeds before planting. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

“I started gardening when I was very young, … all the standards like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant – just experimenting,” Stone said. “My mom always had flowers, so that was kind of cool because I was outside with her and her gardens, and I would just find ways to sneak away and do my own thing.”

Stone’s gardens would grow every time she planted new foods and didn’t feel sick when she ate them.

Often, poor nutrition as a child goes in the other direction: causing unhealthy eating habits, eating disorders or obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20% of young people between 2 and 19 years old have obesity. About 28.8 million Americans will also have an eating disorder in their lifetime, ANAD reported.

Stone acknowledged that she was lucky to grow up in an area like East Haddam where she had the room to grow her own produce. She eventually pursued an agricultural program in school, which ultimately led to her connecting with Future Farmers of America, traveling, teaching and later becoming the owner of Cold Spring Farm. She now partners with a handful of school districts, including Middletown, to help combat poor nutrition and help provide better nutritional options to children.

“Our goal was to always reconnect with the school system, and we were growing food for schools on a much smaller scale before it became a more popular thing,” Stone said. “And now, we’re like ‘Lets jump into developing this program because the timing is now. There’s funding for it and we’re in a place where we have enough coverage to be able to pull it off.’”

To date, in Middletown, 5% of the district’s produce is locally grown, said Randall Mel, who manages the district’s nutrition and wellness services. Stone’s farm helps provide carrots, tomatoes, apples, pears and berries throughout the year, and over the course of three weeks in May, the farm hosted six of Middletown’s eight elementary schools. 

The fourth grade students from the district first visited the farm to help sort wool and plant carrots, potatoes and garlic. In the fall, the students will return to harvest their plants.

The recent field trip for some Farm Hill and Snow elementary schools’ students didn’t change the kids’ minds about becoming farmers, despite how much fun it was to grow carrots. Some still want to be hairdressers and others want to be actresses.

But 10-year-old Owen, who’s favorite part of the trip was raking the trenches for the potatoes to grow, thinks he’s a professional farmer now. 

When asked if he wanted to be a farmer when he’s older, Owen exclaimed, “Yeah! … or a soccer player.”

Connecticut impact

In a March public hearing, several school districts and their food services directors, alongside different farming, gardening and educational organizations, supported the expansion of the Connecticut Farm to Schools program.

Advocates said the program can help low-income students have better access to healthy foods, provide better educational opportunities, support underrepresented farmers and boost the state’s local economy. No one testified in opposition.

In 2018, 89 school food authorities, or SFAs, which operate a district’s school lunch program, were serving local food in their schools. That number increased to 106 in 2019, before dropping slightly to 101 in 2022, according to a report released by UConn’s College of Agricultural Health and Natural Resources in mid-April. Despite a lower number of districts serving local food, the report said the “intensity may have increased” among the districts that are serving locally or regionally grown produce.

“In 2019 there were 61 CT SFAs serving local fruit at least once a week and 48 serving vegetables. By comparison, 87 SFAs currently use local fruit in their cycle menus and 84 incorporate vegetables. Only 10 reported consistently procuring local yogurt or other dairy in 2019, compared to 34 now,” the report said.

Charli Howe, 10, shows the potatoes with their eyes up, as taught from a farmer on the site, for planting. “It’s really fun planting all the seeds and seeing wool,” Howe said. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

UConn also reported that 63% of the state’s SFAs, that responded to their survey, purchased more than half of their produce unprocessed. 

“SFAs do seem to prioritize purchasing from nearby areas. Specifically, 83% of SFAs purchased local products from CT, while 49% purchased from Massachusetts and 39% from New York, which are bordering states,” the report said. “Nearly all respondents (92%) served apples grown in Connecticut, followed by summer squash, then lettuce. Green beans, sweet corn, winter squash and berries were also purchased in-state by at least 40% of directors.”

There’s overwhelming support to continue buying locally, as 97% of directors said they “intended to maintain or increase their procurement levels in the next year” and 30% of directors said “farmers were a top source of local food,” which could have an impact on the state economy.

For example, in 2013, when schools in Vermont spent around $915,000 purchasing from local farms, those funds helped not only support farmers but also helped them expand and allowed them to support other businesses, leading to a $1.4 million contribution to that state’s local economy.

Over 70 farms across Connecticut have expressed interest and an ability to sell to schools, including many that are operated and/or owned by underrepresented farmers.

“There is a priority placed on Alliance Districts — so higher need communities that have been marginalized and may have less resources — for this type of programming and work,” Crayco said. “And then within our incentive program, we’ve built in a preference and priority for socially disadvantaged farmers. So that’ll be up to the Department of Education and working in partnership with us to flesh out what that looks like, but making sure that there are even more of those experiences for students to see that there are farmers in their community and they’re selling to their schools.”

One of those farmers is Zania Johnson, who owns the farm Micro2Life in Simsbury and serves school communities in Hartford and Bloomfield.

“Having this program is one of a kind because it allows for [you to connect with children], especially when I’m looking at the urban communities,” Johnson said, recalling a time she went to a school and brought students a vegetable called bok choy. The students were shocked to learn the vegetable was grown at a farm in Hartford, she said.

“Just exposing them to those opportunities and farming is very hands on. It’s very experimental and it’s very science related. You can learn a lot even through gardening, and I think these are essential skills that students of color need or students that are in urban settings,” Johnson said. “This program is important and again, it connects myself as a producer to the schools — which I know that if it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know if I would have had the opportunity to be connected to Hartford Public Schools. So just having that ability to continue to do this work there — it’s very rewarding and sometimes it chokes me up just to have this opportunity. We need this. We need this for our students, and we need this for our schools in general.”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.