A sweet, juicy watermelon is the perfect snack to dig into on a hot summer day. Even more perfect is bringing home a fresh one from a local farmers market or farm stand. What if you could have that same sweet experience when school starts, and have it delivered fresh from the farm to your school cafeteria?
That is just what students are experiencing in Oklahoma.
Hoop houses, also known as high tunnels, are temporary greenhouses that allow farmers across the state to supply Oklahoma's Farm to School Program with fresh, local products from the start of classes in August to the final bell in June.
"With the use of hoop houses, more farmers can grow in the fall, throughout winter, and into early spring to provide wonderful food in our schools year round," said Chris Kirby, Farm to School Program Administrator for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
To keep these kinds of opportunities growing throughout the state, Kirby works to connect farmers with needed resources. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has a Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative that provides cost-sharing for hoop houses. "If we provide economic opportunities to the farmers, we can get the food to schools," said Kirby.
In late winter and early spring, when it is too cold for outdoor planting, hoop houses allow garden-fresh favorites to flourish. Students in Oklahoma might enjoy fresh greens at the salad bar for lunch in February, root vegetables at snack time in March and even tomatoes before school is out.
Under Kirby's leadership, efforts to increase season extension through hoop houses are bringing these foods and more to Oklahoma's Farm to School Program (OKF2S), and new marketing opportunities to local growers. OKF2S provides workshops, resources, and even hoop house construction drawings for growers of all types to learn about extending their season.
Steve Hill of Phocas Farms in Edmond, OK is one of the producers now able to produce fresh, healthy food year round, even in the winter, thanks to a hoop house. He recently started selling his products to Edmond schools. And he's seen that hoop houses are not only beneficial for the cafeteria, but the classroom too.
During the school year, high school students in Oklahoma take field trips to farms like the Hill's, where they learn about agricultural production, nutrition, and business education. Five AP environmental science classes from Edmond North High School visited Phocas Farms this fall to learn about organic growing practices, see where some of their food is produced and get hands-on experience with field and hoop house production. They'll connect what they're learning to science, math and other courses.
Through these and many other efforts, Kirby and OKF2S are helping create new sales opportunities for Oklahoma farmers and expanding access to fresh, healthy, local food in schools. Interest is overwhelming: there are currently over 70 school districts participating in OKF2S. Let the growing continue!
For more examples of how USDA supports direct connections between local producers and local schools, and for information on season extension, read the Farm to Institution Chapter of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass. Search "farm to school" and "hoop house" or "high tunnel" on the Compass map to find similar projects in your area.