By Nicole Mabry, Louisiana Farm to School Alliance
Rory Gresham leads a tour of the Richland Parish School Board hydroponic growing system.
(Photo credit: Jason Van Haverbeke)
In the transnational push for more sustainable local food systems, rural communities face unique challenges that city-centric conversations can fail to capture. Across Louisiana, rural parishes are finding innovative, collaborative ways to revitalize local food economies that can often feel disinvested from the community. Leading this movement to stimulate local food systems in rural Louisiana are schools.
With support from Seed Change
, a National Farm to School Network initiative aimed at expanding farm to school activities at the state and community levels, and the Louisiana Farm to School Alliance
, a statewide network of organizations working in food, farming, nutrition and education, schools across the state are bringing fresh, healthy food into cafeterias and increasing food and agricultural literacy in the classroom.
A look at three different rural Seed Change Louisiana sites offers a glimpse into how dedicated educators, administrators and growers are finding fresh ways to restore connection and inspire growth through school food.
Richland Parish School Board
Since the beginning of 2016, Richland Parish School Board’s greenhouse program has supplied their Food Service Department with more than 4,200 heads of lettuce to be served in the district’s twelve schools. This is particularly impressive considering the greenhouse is only 20x48 feet – or roughly the size of two adjacent school buses. Serving as a Seed Change Demonstration Site
in northeast Louisiana, Richland Parish School Board invested its Seed Change grant funding into building the greenhouse along with the high-efficiency hydroponic growing system it houses. Rory Gresham, greenhouse manager for Richland Parish School Food Service, has noticed a considerable increase in the amount of greens the students are eating. “It’s amazing how many students come up and tell me that they didn’t know lettuce had a taste,” he says. Far beyond the cafeteria, Richland’s hydroponic greenhouse is also having an impact across the region. Gresham regularly hosts visitors from throughout the south who are eager to replicate this innovative system in their own school districts and communities. With a professional internship program in partnership with the local university slated to begin next year, Richland may well have a hand in producing a new crop of Louisiana farmers along with its lettuce and tomatoes.
Northwest High School, Opelousas
Cody Manuel, agriculture teacher at Northwest High School and Seed Change Louisiana mini-grantee
, often views his classes as a hands-on course in communication skills. Inspired by a Seed Change training held at the Richland Parish School Board Demonstration Site, Manuel hopes to expand his existing garden based curriculum and small-scale hydroponic growing system where he says students are learning meaningful career skills such as, “How to accept constructive criticism, how to work together, how to communicate.” Manuel adds that he’s noticed a niche market emerging for high quality, locally grown crops, and students in his classes are also taking note. Manuel hopes Northwest’s farm to school program will support students’ entry into sustainable farming. “Those that enjoy growing things and see there’s money to be made in it, they’ll pursue it. I think it’s going that way, it’s not just a trend.”
LaSalle Parish School Board
Kelly Thompson, Child Nutrition Supervisor at LaSalle Parish Schools and lifelong gardener, has always been attracted to the idea of incorporating gardening into classroom curriculum. “What a great way to teach students leadership, responsibility and to help them develop a sense of place about our community,” she says. After being selected as a Seed Change Louisiana mini-grantee, Thompson was able to turn her vision into reality. Equipped with training and funding, raised bed gardens have been installed at all four of LaSalle Parish’s elementary schools – and the impacts have been noticeable. “Students having so much fun and smiling. Even their behavior has changed, with a new peace and calmness.” The gardens are also gaining interest and support from many in the community. Some of the community’s most knowledgeable local gardeners now volunteer and are helping to keep the gardens thriving. Through these school-community partnerships, LaSalle Parish is restoring the community’s intergenerational knowledge of the land and teaching the parish’s littlest learners how to grow.
(Photo credit: LaSalle Parish School Board)
Funding and support provided by Seed Change has sparked an upwelling of new opportunities for farm to school projects across the region. Katie Mularz, Executive Director for the Louisiana Farm to School Alliance and Seed Change State Coordinator said, “Even modest farm to school funding supports schools to be innovative agents of change—leading the way to healthier, more sustainable systems while addressing community needs and inspiring youth to see a brighter future.”
Learn more about the National Farm to School Network’s Seed Change initiative and how we’re growing farm to school state by state here.
Seed Change in Kentucky, Louisiana and Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Walmart Foundation, which shares the National Farm to School Network’s commitment to improving child and community healthy through innovative partnerships.