By Ariel Bernstein, Farm to School and Education Fellow
Photo credit: Berry Good Farms, North Florida School of Special Education
Farm to school's educational opportunities are undeniably important, for the knowledge, skills and experiences that come from learning about local, fresh and healthy food are universally valued. This aspect of farm to school is especially important in specialized learning environments. North Florida School of Special Education
(NFSSE) goes above and beyond for the education, growth and empowerment of their students, ranging from 6 years old to adults in their 40s. Berry Good Farms
, the school’s farm and horticulture program, offers hands-on learning experiences in growing, harvesting and cooking healthy food, as well as developing unique and useful skillsets in the agricultural and business sectors. Through its many programs, Berry Good Farms empowers students to be self-sufficient and caring individuals against the toughest of odds.
Students at NFSSE face a large variety of intellectual and behavioral challenges, such as autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, down syndrome, and other mild to moderate intellectual disabilities. Berry Good Farms serves as an outlet for these students to be immersed in horticulture education as a means for holistic and applied learning, and thus has a variety of programs for students to participate in. Students learn horticulture on the farm, make and sell dog biscuits as part of the Barkin’ Biscuit
program, and learn to cook fresh, healthy food in the culinary arts program
. All of these programs utilize produce from the farm and teach students a variety of useful skillsets, enabling them to make connections between their knowledge, their work and their futures.
The newest program at Berry Good Farms is Berry Good Farms On the Go
, a food truck that roams Jacksonville, Fla., procuring, preparing, cooking and selling food from the school farm to the community. After graduating from the culinary arts program, advanced students have the opportunity to work in the food truck as part of a post-grad employment opportunity. Under the helm of Food Truck/Catering Events Manager and Chef Brett Swearingen, three to four students design a seasonal menu, prepare food in a commercial kitchen, and head out into the community for a great lunch hour of selling food in business parks, state agency offices, and wherever else the truck decides to plant itself. Seasonal menu items include a grilled turkey and brie sandwich served with locally made bread, a signature salad with fresh greens from Berry Good Farms, and a refreshing pineapple mojito smoothie.
The truck caters to skills and experiences that specifically pertain to students with special needs and intellectual challenges. Many of these students do well with food prep tasks that require repetitive activities. The students cherish physically applying a specific skill set that they've learned, especially in the context of the food truck business.
The truck, as well as a the farm program as a whole, promotes healthy eating and fresh produce. This is extremely important, considering the high rate of obesity that exists in the special needs community, and provides local, healthy food to the Jacksonville community in the process. In addition, the tasks learned on the truck are useful well beyond the school; these skills and lessons are empowering students to be self-reliant. They can cook healthy meals, interact with the greater community, and utilize their learned business skills in the workforce. Experience on the food truck makes for a great addition to resumes, too!
Berry Good Farms On the Go is much more than a food truck. It is a space that fosters professional, as well as personal, growth for students who have many different intellectual and learning conditions. Students utilize their culinary skills in the context of a commercial kitchen, and they learn to interact with co-workers, as well as customers. It also give students an opportunity to practice managing potentially stressful situations in a positive manner. The kitchen is far from a perfect space, and as Brett says to his students, “It’s okay to mess up. I have been working in a kitchen for 15 years and I still mess up.” Even when the truck is off schedule and customer orders are backed up, Brett teaches his students how to deal with the stress in the moment, and then how to move forward from mistakes, using them as a learning experience and even a silly memory, not a set back.
Berry Good Farms On the Go has not only been a successful addition to NFSSE, but it’s also proven to benefit the entire community. People around Jacksonville see students working in a kitchen and selling food, challenging preconceived notions of people with special needs. The community is extremely supportive of the food truck, creating a positive and inspirational environment for students as they drive through town. As Brett says, “These are incredible young people that can always put you in a happy mood. It is an incredible place.”
Learn more about the North Florida School of Special Education, Berry Good Farms, and Berry Good Farms on the Go by visiting northfloridaschool.org. Contact Ellen Hiser, Director of Berry Good Farms or Brett Swearingen, Food Truck/Catering Events Manager with questions.