Today’s kids are tomorrow’s leaders. And if that’s the case, it makes good sense to focus on education if we truly want to build a healthy, sustainable, and just food system.
A number of organizations do just that: Encourage school children to learn about growing, preparing, and enjoying healthy organic foods. Farm-to-cafeteria programs, school garden initiatives, and myriad hands-in-the-dirt experiential learning programs bring the world of farming and food to life for kids all over the nation.
There’s just one problem—cash. And time-starved educators and school districts have a hard enough time meeting basic requirements. How are they supposed to manage something as intensive as a school garden?
The solution to this riddle isn’t that difficult, as the Portland, Oregon-based organization Schoolyard Farms discovered. After all, demand for fresh, local, organic produce is high. Why not take advantage of this fact and turn the school garden into a money-making venture?
Schoolyard Farms’ pilot program was launched three years ago, at Candy Lane Elementary school, with a one-acre garden that has produced more than 5,000 pounds of produce since its founding. Much of that produce is sold through a traditional CSA, as well as to the local Head Start program, and area restaurants and farmers’ markets. Some of the harvest also gets consumed “on site” at the Candy Lane cafeteria. Outside fundraising helps the program remain solvent; the organization has raised some $40,000 in grants and donations, and has a widening base of volunteers working to support the work.
At the same time, the farm serves as a living classroom for students at the school who participate weekly to learn about farming and nutrition. During the summer months, the farm opens to day-campers from grades 1 through 6 who learn about germination, transplanting, tending, harvesting and of course enjoying fresh vegetables.
Earlier this year, the organization opened a second site at the New Urban High School which, like Candy Lane, is located in the near-Portland community of Milwaukie. Programming at the high school will be adjusted for the age and needs of older students including job training in agriculture.
In so doing, Schoolyard Farms is planting not only a local food source, but what executive director and co-founder Courtney Leeds hopes is a lifelong appreciation for healthy foods and where they come from. “Youth involved in a school farm or garden are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables and develop healthy eating habits,” she explains. “By giving students access to the fruits and vegetables that they nurtured and watched grow, we are increasing their chances of good health into their adulthood.”
With its combination of real-world profits from food sales, in addition to grants and fundraising (including the organization’s annual Schoolyard Farm to Table Dinner, which takes place each autumn), Leeds is demonstrating that such lofty goals can be achieved without draining the store of energy, time and money so limited at most public schools.