Omar, the school garden club coordinator, instructs a group of seventh grade students to “pick an adult” and leads them to the greenhouse. The bright blue sky and expansive mountain range set a dramatic backdrop for the six raised beds and two greenhouses. Mona, a precocious 12 year-old student at Magdalena Middle School in New Mexico, wastes no time charging into the greenhouse and swiftly picking red leaf lettuce. She instructs me on proper harvest techniques while happily munching on Swiss chard, kale and lettuce straight from the garden – she clearly has no need for salad dressing.
Since 2013, the Office of Community Food Systems has awarded over $20 million to more than 300 grantees for farm to school, which encompasses efforts to integrate regional foods in child nutrition programs. It also connects children to the source of their food through cooking classes, taste-tests, farm visits and school gardens. Grants range from $14,500 to $100,000 for farm to school planning, implementation and training.
In May, I had the chance to visit New Mexico’s Magdalena Municipal School District, a 2015 and 2017 Farm to School grantee. The school used the 2015 funds to contract with Omar, a local farmer who mentors students to grow and harvest over 10 crops. Students proudly shared what they learned from the garden club, including “irrigation systems” and “how to get rid of aphids using ladybugs.” The school’s salad bar is the star of the lunchroom and is described as “restaurant-quality,” as it includes student-grown lettuce, leafy greens, cucumbers and tomatoes from the school garden. Since they no longer need to purchase lettuce during the winter, the cafeteria staff shared, “the garden has saved us a lot of money!”
Using additional grant funds from the state, the school will pay students to maintain the garden through the summer and sell the produce at a farm stand. This type of program is incredibly important in a community like Magdalena, where the closest grocery store is 30 miles away. Joaquin Lujan, a local farmer and partner to the school garden project, explained “New Mexico is one of the poorest economies in the country, and kids go hungry. It is vital that projects like this survive.” When Leslie Clark, the school principal, and Michael Chavez, the New Mexico Department of Education State Director, were asked what they would say to fellow administrators about the benefits of Farm to School, they responded “It reaches kids that would not otherwise be reached and engages them in learning.”
On June 12, we awarded Farm to School grants to 65 grantees, which will reach approximately 5,500 schools and more than 2 million students. Selected projects are located in urban, rural and suburban areas across 42 states and Puerto Rico. We estimate that 37 percent of the target school districts are rural. Additionally, 14 projects will occur in the pre-K environment, while 27 projects will occur in summer feeding programs. State agencies and Indian Tribal Organizations remain a priority for Farm to School grant funding. And this year, we will fund 17 state agencies and one Indian Tribal Organization, The Karuk Tribe of California.
We congratulate our 2017 Farm to School Grantees, including Magdalena School District, as they are handed the torch to continue the farm to school work that has impacted over 23 million children nationwide thus far. Learn more about this year’s grantees by checking out the 2017 Farm to School List of Awardees.