Farm-to-School Programs Thrive in Washington State

Within Port Townsend’s Salish Coast Elementary School, a cluster of fifth-grade students tackles a math query: If a farmer intends to sow four seeds per foot across two 40-foot rows, how many seeds must the farmer acquire?

This particular math dilemma embodies the kind that fifth graders often encounter. At Salish Coast, however, theoretical ponderings don’t suffice; enter “Farmer Neil,” posing the question while the students physically sow the seeds.

11-year-old Gus Griffin, currently busy planting 320 bean seeds in one of the school’s trio of gardens, enthusiastically notes, “If you know you played a role in food production, the taste is undeniably better.” (That, incidentally, solves the math conundrum.)

Salish Coast’s gardening endeavors form a crucial component of the Port Townsend School District’s farm-to-school initiative. Referred to as “Farmer Neil” by the students, Neil Howe—acting as the school’s garden production overseer—advances students’ skills in math, science, and research through gardening, nurturing their inquisitiveness in the process.

“Every time I stumble upon a grub, it’s an opportunity to delve into the realm of science. ‘What’s this critter? Any takers?’ I encourage them to explore and inquire about the bug’s identity,” Howe elaborated on his educational approach.

 Neil Howe, also known as “Farmer Neil,” presents a math query to students concerning the number of beans to be planted. March 28, 2024. (Grace Deng/Washington State Standard)
The institution also sources beef, pork, and grain from local farmers, encapsulating the trifecta of farm-to-school initiatives: encompassing school gardens, food education, and local food acquisition. Although intricacies vary, virtually every state integrates some form of farm-to-school project.

Washington’s initiative debuted in 2008, catalyzing a surge in farm-to-school appreciation. Last autumn, the Washington State Department of Agriculture was inundated with over $8 million in farm-to-school funding appeals from schools—a figure more than double the available funding.

In 2021, the program witnessed expansion spurred by federal COVID-19 allocations. Anticipating impending depletion of federal funds, the agriculture department foresees state legislators stepping up to replenish the finances.

“When students engage in cultivating their own meals, consumption naturally increases,” pronounced Shannon Gray, the Port Townsend district’s food services overseer.

“I prioritize garden-fresh items over options sourced elsewhere,” Gray affirmed regarding the school’s cafeteria offerings. “If they shun the food, I recognize that I’ve overlooked showcasing the garden produce.”

Students from Salish Coast engaging in bean planting activity. March 28, 2024. (Grace Deng/Washington State Standard)

Ascension of Farm-to-School

Approximately half of Washington’s school districts partake in some variant of farm-to-school nourishment program, estimates Annette Slonim, WSDA’s farm-to-school coordinator.

A 2019 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture illuminated that about 68% of the Washington respondents were active farm-to-school participants, encompassing over 1,300 schools out of the state’s total of around 3,000.

Over half of Washington’s respondents revealed participation of less than three years in farm-to-school initiatives.

This year, the USDA’s nutritional directives are anticipated to restrict added sugar in school meals for the first instance. Nevertheless, with farm-to-school pursuits, managing sugar levels, sodium content, and overall nutritional quotient becomes more seamless.

Slonim highlighted that the pandemic underscored the resilience of local establishments in contrast to disruptions in the global food supply chain.

“The pandemic underscored the fragility of various sections of the food supply chain,” Slonim remarked.

Local enterprises and communities relish the fruits of such endeavors: Port Townsend, for instance, procured over 1,000 pounds of pork from One Straw Ranch in the last two academic years. Owned by Charlotte Frederickson and her husband, Martin Frederickson, One Straw Ranch ensures its pigs are fed local produce and luxuriate in outdoor living, a departure from most conventional pig farming practices.

“We believe forging a relationship with your sustenance holds significance environmentally, socially, ethically—across the spectrum,” elucidated Charlotte Frederickson. “Inculcating such values in the upcoming generation of consumers who will determine their food sources fills us with pride.”

Port Townsend’s farming initiative continues expanding. Howe and the students generated around 4,000 pounds of produce last year. Their target for the current year: 6,000 pounds, with the children exhibiting unbridled enthusiasm to contribute.

“It’s quite a fantastic experience,” Griffin, the 11-year-old student, enthused while gazing at the garden.

Nutritive and Pedagogical Gains

Cassandra Hayes, the nutritional services director at Colville School District, expressed surprise at the lack of food source awareness among certain kids.

Introducing farm-to-school at the district, Hayes organized a carrot exposition, showcasing Washington’s carrots complete with their verdant tops. To her astonishment, some children presumed carrots naturally appeared in their peeled, baby carrot form.

In its nascent two-year duration, Colville School District’s farm-to-school endeavor highlights how two alumni, now a couple, supply beef to the schools.

Hayes disclosed the trial-and-error process involved in identifying palatable options for the children. High schoolers at Colville partake in crafting ranch dressing from scratch, a practice embraced by some but met with skepticism by others craving the familiar store-bought alternatives.

Nevertheless, Hayes stressed the program’s efficacy, noting children’s preference for locally sourced fare. When Colville had to switch suppliers for carrots, returning to their initial producer following a brief stint with a local one, the kids voiced their discontent.

“They questioned the dissonance,” Hayes recounted. “Holding up a carrot, they declared, ‘This isn’t the same!’ I explained it was indeed a carrot, but they insisted it lacked the usual sweetness.”

“Baffled, I responded, ‘Apologies, but the carrots were all consumed.’ They demanded, ‘Well, then, tell them to grow more!'” Hayes humorously concluded.

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