South Whidbey School District Farm and Garden Program

The South Whidbey School District Farm and Garden Program, 2016 recipient of the Chartwells-sponsored Eat. Learn. Live. Grow Grant, integrates the garden into the school experience of students in grades kindergarten through eight. The gardens at these Washington State schools provide their students with a working knowledge and appreciation of the skills required to grow fresh vegetables and fruits, along with a deeper understanding of the importance of food in building a health community. Not only do children get pick and eat fresh vegetables as part of their garden class sessions and Healthy Snacks program, this robust garden program also delivers seasonal fresh vegetables to the district’s elementary, middle, and high school campuses. The program also provides about 600 pounds of fresh produce for three major K-5 all-school events – the Thanksgiving harvest feast, April Earth Day celebration, and the Elementary School end-of-the-year picnic. Overall, over 1500 pounds of fresh veggies direct from the garden are consumed at the schools. Wow!

Says school farm and garden program coordinator Cary Peterson, “The children have shown an increased enthusiasm for the fresh vegetables they have helped to grow and harvest. The children now devour kale and French sorrel. This past year we began to grow pea shoots for healthy snacking and for pesto—both also received a huge positive response from the students involved. Parents report that their children are eating more vegetables at home and requesting vegetables they hadn’t wanted before. The cafeteria team remarks that children take and eat more salads when they know the greens are from the school farm. Children at the farm are inquisitive and eager to try different vegetables, as they now know how delicious produce can be when fresh. In addition, at the urging from inspired children, families are installing gardens at their homes. From the ground up, we are changing the fresh food experience of a generation of children, their families and the community.”

preview for CULTIVATING KIDS from Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin on Vimeo.

Volunteers are an essential part of this innovative program. Committed volunteers have installed fencing and built gates, constructed the hoop house, built a harvest shed, and invented and installed a kids’ hand-washing station, as well as managing most infrastructure maintenance and improvement projects. Farm volunteers help with bed prep planting, and weeding, while class volunteers assist with teaching the garden-based curriculum to students. Volunteers also assist with fundraising, curriculum development, and event coordination, cooking and serving. The garden program recruits volunteers through word-of-mouth, partnerships with non-profits, parent bulletins, community emails and newsletters, their webpage and the local newspaper. During the summer they hold a weekly Tuesday morning volunteer work party followed by a picnic.

South Whidbey School District’s four garden spaces are expansive. The half-acre School Farm offers garden-based curriculum for grades K-5. It is designed to be an outdoor classroom with intensive production capacity for growing vegetables in 55 beds, ranging in size from 20 to 40 feet long. Three large open areas for gathering, including one with picnic tables, an orchard with 18 trees, 9 circular beds (several with 15 feet tall bean teepees), two hoophouses, and a former carport frame that now serves as a trellis for vine crops add spaces for learning and growing. Compost and worm bins recycle garden waste, while flowering plants to attract pollinators bloom nearby.

The Elementary School playground boasts two raised beds planted primarily with flowers and herbs, while the Langley Middle School garden offers 24 beds, as well as picnic tables, compost bins, worm bins – even a greenhouse. Next on list at the elementary school is a garden in support of South Whidbey’s new Healthy Snacks program. This growing space will give students and teachers easy access to healthy foods for snacking, cultivating healthy eating habits along with the “snackable” veggies.

These ambitious gardeners have also established what’s known as the “Big Acre” in collaboration with the Good Cheer Food Bank. This one acre space is devoted to growing vegetables for delivery to the school cafeterias, as well as the food bank. School-grown lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, peas, carrots, onions, basil, beets, parsley summer squash and winter squash from this production farm are regulars on the cafeteria menu.

In addition, garden program coordinators partner with the food service staff to offer tasting events in the cafeteria and help to organize an annual Thanksgiving Harvest Feast for parents and children at the elementary school cafeteria, with the school farm providing school grown and harvested potatoes, winter squash, carrots, kale, and pumpkins. They are working with the food service to figure how to best serve the cafeterias’ produce needs and have even developed a freezing protocol that, upon approval, will be able to provide year-round school-grown produce, either fresh or frozen.

“Because of the size of our farm and the number of our gardens, every student in garden-based classes can pick and eat fresh veggies,” notes Cary Peterson. “This is an essential and very popular part of the program–eating fresh food has become an ongoing, integral part of students’ school experience. They are learning nutrition from the inside out.” Because the classes are outdoors, students experience hands-on and experiential learning and reap the benefits of physical activity and exercise as well. “Most importantly,” says Cary, “by having positive and engaging experiences outdoors at the farm, the children are developing a strong connection with the natural world that will nurture and serve them through their entire lives.”