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Willow Cove Elementary Brings the Classroom Outside

Posted by Kacie O'Brien, USDA FNS Farm to School Regional Lead in Food and Nutrition Initiatives
Oct 31, 2014
The following guest blog is part of our Cafeteria Stories series, highlighting the efforts of hard working school nutrition professionals who are dedicated to making the healthy choice the easy choice at schools across the country.  We thank them for sharing their stories!

“My carrot is burnt!” exclaimed a Willow Cove Elementary student in February, when they harvested carrots from the school garden for the first time. The student had never seen a purple carrot before and that day, the whole class enjoyed sample tastes of orange, white, and purple carrots. Carrots are just one of the many crops students have harvested from the Willow Cove garden, and they have a motivated teacher and their Nutrition Services department to thank for the experience.

At the start of last school year, Willow Cove Elementary School’s kindergarten teacher called the District’s Director of Nutrition Services, Matthew Belasco, to ask for a few milk crates to start a small window garden. Matthew, eager to get a school garden up and running, took this spark of interest and ran with it. Within a few hours, he arrived at Willow Cove with a wheel barrow, soil, shovels, and seeds, convinced the teacher that raised beds were preferable, and got to work planting the first school garden within Pittsburg Unified School District (PUSD), just outside Willow Cove’s kindergarten classroom. Willow Cove’s success with maintaining the garden and engaging students with outdoor lessons created the momentum and excitement needed to begin expanding Pittsburg’s farm to school program.

With the help of a USDA Farm to School Implementation Grant and support from the California Farm to Fork Office, Pittsburg Unified has made incredible strides in a very short time – from integrating agriculture education into the school day to serving school garden produce in the cafeteria. There is no better way to celebrate Pittsburg Unified’s farm to school success than a trip to the White House garden. Willow Cove students joined First Lady Michelle Obama at the Fall White House Kitchen Garden Harvest earlier this month!

Beyond gardens, Matthew and his farm to school team organized their first-ever farm field trip for Willow Cove students late last spring. On a hot, dry Northern California day, several classes hopped in a yellow school bus and headed twenty minutes up the road to First Generation Farmers in Brentwood, California. Students rotated through five interactive stations and had a blast. In fact, one Willow Cove second grader stood up from planting an heirloom squash seed and proclaimed to no one in particular, “This is the best.” Despite Pittsburg being just a stone’s throw from this robust growing region at the edge of the Greater Bay Area, it was clear the majority of students had never planted seeds, played with compost worms, fed chickens or picked kale. Teachers enjoyed connecting the hands-on learning experiences on the farm and in the school garden to the Common Core. And, students even practiced their writing skills and expressed appreciation with hand-written thank you notes to the farm!

Farm to school activities aren’t limited to Pittsburg’s elementary schools. Back in April, a group of students, food service staff, and teachers spent the weekend clearing out all the weeds and bringing in soil and fresh mulch for a tiered garden at Pittsburg High School. Then, with some help from a master gardener, students planted the garden and tended it. Over the summer and into the start of the school year, the garden has been producing an excellent crop – squash, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, and more! PUSD food service staff used the produce in the Summer Food Service Program and recently served cucumbers from the garden on the salad bar at lunch time. In a matter of months, Pittsburg High School went from having no garden to serving produce grown by students on the lunch line.

Pittsburg’s farm to school program is blossoming and generating the excitement needed to keep it going. In fact, the high school and elementary school gardens have been so successful that Pittsburg Unified created a new staff position for a district school garden coordinator. Six more raised beds are being installed at Willow Cove just to meet teacher demands!