Farm-to-school, farm-to-school, farm-to-school. Everywhere I turn I seem to see or hear this phrase nowadays. Of course, this is music to my ears, especially now that my wife and I have a baby who will one day be crossing the threshold of our Decatur community's schools. Farm-to-school incorporates three distinct features that work together to create a more complete nutrition and education totality: healthy food in the cafeteria, nutrition education, and school gardens. I tip my fedora to the Decatur Farm-to-School Initiative, a grassroots organization that connects schools with local farms to improve nutrition, education, and support for local farmers, and to the City Schools of Decatur, where six of the eight schools already have school gardens.
I may be preaching to the choir here giving school garden tips to seasoned school gardeners, but I'll try to ramp it up a notch and go all AP on you, okay?
1. Grow intensely. You can grow two pounds per square foot per year in our climate pretty easily. I know maximizing harvests is not necessarily the goal of a school garden, but wouldn't it be interesting to see just how much is possible, especially for those of you who lean toward being competitive? You can try lots of different ways to do this, but you're simply not going to hit your numbers without catching the whole fall season (which means planting by September 15, although broccoli, beet, kale, and turnip seeds are already in--don't worry, I'll have some fall transplants at my store, and I have lots of fall seeds you still have time to plant) and actively growing through the winter (season extenders like row covers and cold frames help).
2. Expand. Add some beds, add a few rows (especially for those high-energy middle schoolers) and raise the bar for how many students are involved and how robust you want your school gardening program to be. If you don't have these already, consider adding a dedicated herb bed (make them perennials and the upkeep is minimal), a bed just for strawberries (plant in October and pick near the end of school--sweet!), and perhaps some fruit trees or bushes (plant in October also). If you do rows, you may want to start ordering your seeds and transplants like a real urban farmer--contact us for quantity discounts.
3. Connect. See how many ways you can involve more people in your school and your community in your growing efforts. Science classes can study the soil, water, and plants. The food can be cooked and shared by home economic classes or after-school cooking clubs. The art class can sketch and paint with inspiration (or even make their own natural dyes) from the garden. Literature classes can write essays, journal entries, and poems. Health classes can get kids moving out there and putting theory into practice about living a more active, healthy lifestyle. Special education classes can enjoy the sensory integration and hands-on learning features of a garden. Math classes will be busy from morning bell until dismissal measuring, adding, estimating, weighing, and figuring answers to every question under the sun (literally). Food service professionals can snip herbs to garnish lunches. Local businesses can get involved by donating money and supplies. Parents and grandparents can volunteer. And, of course, don't forget to consider making regular donations to your local food pantry as an important community outreach lesson for all, especially when you realize many families with children at Decatur schools will benefit from them.
The Decatur Farm-to-School Initiative is hosting a Farm-to-School Symposium this Saturday (August 25). Why not go and connect with others in the community who are working to make a difference for our city's children by improving school food in many ways? Be sure to swing by Farmer D Organics on Briarcliff Road or online for supplies for your school garden, or contact us if you want help expanding or refreshing your garden for fall (or if you are with one of the two schools without a garden and are ready to start). We'd love to help. I have a Decatur student-in-training in my home already practicing how to hold a trowel!