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Looking back to grow forward: the importance of evaluation in farm to school

NFSN Staff Monday, October 19, 2015
By Stephanie Heim, University of Minnesota Extension



Do you remember getting docked points on your algebra test if you failed to ‘show your work?’ If the equation was 2x = 10, it wasn’t acceptable to simply write x=5.  For full points, it was important for you demonstrate how to isolate the x. As we learned from junior high algebra class, documenting the ‘how’ is essential. 

So, what makes Farm to School work, and how do we know the work is making an impact? Good evaluation cannot be divorced from good program management. Think about this for a moment; to develop and implement solid Farm to School initiatives, evaluation must be prioritized. A basic ingredient to know whether you have a good thing going is documentation. 

The Evaluation for Transformation framework released last year by the National Farm to School Network is a gold mine in determining the significance and worth of Farm to School. The framework defines the outcomes that Farm to School has the potential to achieve, and it offers common language, guidelines and metrics to understand those outcomes for the first time. 

At the beginning of 2015, Minnesota’s Statewide Farm to School Leadership team set out to learn what makes our team work and determine what outcomes have occurred as a result of our collective action. According to the USDA Farm to School Census, 208 school districts in Minnesota participated in Farm to School in the 2011-12 school year. This is up from just 18 in 2006. While we know Farm to School partnerships have flourished in Minnesota, we set out to learn what, if any, role the Farm to School Leadership team has played in this tremendous growth. This team was formed in April 2011 with the purpose to leverage resources, improve communication and collaboration, and ultimately maximize the impact of Farm to School in our state. It was built upon the strong foundation of collaboration that had already been laid, and together, we developed a team agreement as a basis for shared leadership, responsibility and accountability. 



This infographic provides a glimpse of Farm to School in Minnesota, including the benefits of our leadership team as described by 22 current and former members. An integrative leadership framework was selected to guide the evaluation of our leadership team because it is designed to increase understanding of how cross-sector collaborations are brought together to effectively address large scale, public problems.  Minnesota’s Farm to School Leadership Team is cross-sector as it consists of 11 organizations from the public and private sector with expertise from public health, rural development, education and agriculture. 

So what are our next steps? In partnership with Family Development’s Applied Research and Evaluation Team, we will work together to produce two additional documents. One will highlight the success of the Farm to School Leadership team and the growth of Farm to School activities in our state, and another will be written as a ‘how-to’ guide intended to help others build and sustain Farm to School Leadership teams and cross-sector collaborations. 

Evaluation shouldn’t be dreaded or viewed as something we ‘have’ to do. If we begin to shift our thinking to see evaluation as an integral component of Farm to School and our work and take a systems approach, evaluation not only improves how we tell our story, it ensures that Farm to School initiatives truly do help kids eat healthy, support nearby farmers, foster economic vitality and strengthen communities.

A peachy pair: growing Florida peaches for Florida kids

NFSN Staff Thursday, October 15, 2015
This week’s Farm to School Month blogs are sponsored by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative representing more than 1,800 organic farmers across the United States. Committed to fostering health and wellness in the youth of America, Organic Valley is proud to support the National Farm to School Network.
 Photo credit: Florida Farm to School Program
By the Florida Farm to School Program
Home to some of the first farm to school activities in the country, Florida has a robust history of connecting kids to fresh, healthy food and supporting local farmers. So when it became clear that Florida citrus farmers were severely struggling to grow oranges, the Florida Farm to School Program was eager to work with growers and schools to foster new partnership opportunities - with peaches!

In recent years, the Florida citrus industry has experienced significant difficulties with citrus greening – a disease that causes citrus trees to grow green, misshapen fruit, and has killed millions of citrus plants in the United States. According to the USDA, Florida is currently producing 60 percent less citrus than what it was just 15 years ago because of this plant disease. The 2014-2015 season was particularly bad, what Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam called “a new low for Florida’s citrus industry and our state’s signature crop.” Now, some Florida citrus growers are confronting these losses by diversifying their crop and growing peaches. 

The peaches they’re growing are a new variety of “Florida Peach” recently developed by researchers at the University of Florida. This special variety can tolerate longer periods of heat than most peach varieties, better fitting Florida’s warm climate. While these Florida peaches are generally smaller in size, they are harvestable months sooner than peaches in Georgia and South Carolina. 

As these Florida peaches began ripening, our Florida Farm to School Program teamed up with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to help farmers find markets for this delicious new crop. Our #1 idea? Schools! 

While most schools had never purchased Florida peaches before, many had been supportive of sourcing local food for school meals. Florida Farm to School had a network of schools to which we could promote these peaches, as well as the resources to connect and facilitate sales between growers and schools. For many citrus growers, this was a completely new market to prosper within. 

We were able to help secure new and experienced peach growers, and work with vendors and school distributors to assist with procurement. We worked to add peaches to the DoD Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program catalog, so school districts participating in the program had the opportunity to purchase fresh, Florida peaches. These districts responded with great enthusiasm to the new addition, which encouraged us to reach out to even more districts with this local fruit opportunity. 

With schools on board, the citrus farmers developed a relationships with Florida Classic Growers to create a special distribution packaging intended just for schools. This packaging can hold larger quantities of peaches than typically packages sold to grocery chains. The partnership demonstrates the opportunity and potential for schools, growers, processors and distributors to work together in creating a food supply chain that supports all parties involved. Check out the video above to see how it works!   

This spring 24 Florida school districts purchased 434,240 peaches for student to enjoy, and supported local citrus growers with more than $250,000 spent on this special local fruit. By working directly with farmers and school food service directors, the Florida Farm to School Team was able to help Florida citrus farmers during trying years, while also giving students the chance to eat a new, “Fresh from Florida” fruit in their school lunch. We’re excited to build upon this Florida Fresh Peach Promotion next season, and continue supporting economic development and healthy kids throughout our state. 

Urban farms help city kids bring field to tray

NFSN Staff Wednesday, October 14, 2015
This week’s Farm to School Month blogs are sponsored by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative representing more than 1,800 organic farmers across the United States. Committed to fostering health and wellness in the youth of America, Organic Valley is proud to support the National Farm to School Network.

   Photo Credit: Illinois Farm to School Network
By Lydia Mills, Illinois Farm to School Network 

Illinois may be corn country, but with 65 percent of the state’s population living in the Chicago area, many students have little experience with agriculture. When city kids think of farms, they typically imagine acres of pasture and red barns filled with cows. So as farm to school grows in Illinois, so do our efforts to connect students with agricultural experience in their own back yards. With farm to school field trips and lessons in the school garden, students are learning what it takes to get food from field to plate. 

Urban farms in Chicago, Springfield, and other cities in Illinois are booming, and many value community involvement as much as profits and sales. With specialties from aquaponics to livestock, and apiaries to orchards, these farms provide an opportunity for students to learn about food production and agricultural career options without leaving the city.  

Recently, I accompanied a group of elementary students from the south side of Chicago to one of these urban farms – a total distance of 5.5 miles away. Windy City Harvest Youth Farm is a small vegetable operation with high tunnels in the heart of Chicago. The farm hosts a dynamic youth development program, employing up to 90 teens from low-income communities to learn about growing food sustainably, healthy eating, and food justice advocacy. Youth Farm students not only grow good, healthy food for their neighbors – they’re proving to be the next generation of food leaders: 93 percent graduate from high school, 53 percent enroll in college, and many continue their work in Chicago’s growing urban agriculture sector. 

On our tour of this farm, the elementary students were open to experiences and opportunities they had never had before. They picked and ate mizuna greens in the high tunnels and declared them a new favorite (they also dubbed them “mizu-ka” greens!). In the raised garden beds, turnips stuck out, and the students were excited for the opportunity to harvest them – which they did with great enthusiasm. The apiary was the only section of the farm where the students held back, a bit afraid of being stung. However, they asked the farmer lots of questions, and were able to learn a great lesson about pollination. 

After this field trip, the students were noticeably more engaged in their garden at school. They were excited to spend time tending to the vegetable they were growing, and even more so when it was time to harvest. The garden was both a learning tool and an eating tool! 

Farm visits are valuable in every type of educational setting – from K-12 classes to afterschool and child care programs – and there are dozens of resources for aligning classroom curriculum with these educational tours. In Illinois, farms like Angelic Organics Learning Farm have created standards-aligned programming so that farm visits enhance classroom learning, and organizations like Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom offer numerous curriculum materials. Seven Generations Ahead distributes a free, standards-based curriculum for year round school garden education, called Sow and Grow. When field trips aren’t an option, educators are using the Adopt a Farmer Program to connect students with farmers through pen-pal style photos, letters and classroom visits.   

Farm to school programs teach students many things, including where food comes from and how to appreciate the process that it takes for food to get to our plates. Meeting farmers, whether urban or rural, and seeing their work to bring food from field to plate is just as vital as tasting new foods. This farmer-student connect is also a proven method for encouraging kids to try new food. Kids who know their food, eat their food. Visit a farm during Farm to School Month and see what your students learn! 

Salad Bars and Farm to School – A Healthy Match

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 13, 2015

By Emily Miller, Let's Move Salad Bars to School

Photo credit: Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools

Picture your child walking into the school lunchroom on their first day back to school. The doors swing open and what do they see? A salad bar brimming with fresh from the farm fruits and vegetables. Juicy grape tomatoes, red bell peppers, refreshing cucumbers - the colors and tastes make their mouth water, and gets them excited about this nutrient-packed part of school lunchtime.

At Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, we believe that salad bars and farm to school make a healthy match. The quality and freshness of local produce contributes to a tastier product that appeals to even the pickiest of eaters. And, when schools develop relationships with farmers, it opens up new avenues for teaching kids about where food comes from and how to make healthy choices. In honor of National Farm to School Month, we caught up with some of our Let’s Move salad bar recipients to see how they are making farm to school work. Here’s what we learned:

Richmond, VA
Richmond Public Schools, headed by Food Service Director Susan Roberson, is a district that’s proving urban environments can make farm to school procurement and education a priority. “We are an urban school system with most of our students living in food deserts,” Roberson explains. “They don’t have the opportunities at home to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, ” which is why having local variety in the lunchroom is so important. 

Around the same time Richmond began implementing salad bars (called garden patches in their schools) they also received a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant that allowed them to explore the readiness and eagerness of students, staff and community for fresh local food incorporated into the school system. They found that the enthusiasm was there, but the infrastructure was lacking.

“We surveyed farmers in our community to find the obstacles and challenges of transporting crop into our schools,” Roberson notes. They found what was really needed was a food hub that farmers could deliver their goods to, and where the produce could be properly readied for distribution to the district’s 44 schools. 

Richmond Public Schools is now working with the city to make this vision a reality, and the district continues to forge ahead with their emphasis on local, farm fresh options in the meantime. For example, elementary schools are implementing school gardens that yield enough crops – such as kale, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce – to serve on the salad bar. 
 
In addition, Roberson ensures that farmers visit the kids to teach them about how food makes it from field to cafeteria tray. “Some of the funniest stories are when the farmer is telling the kids ‘this is a peach, where do you think this came from?’ and the students are hollering ‘from a can!’,” Roberson said. “The students are amazed to realize that they really don’t know where food comes from. It really helps you understand the importance of what we’re doing here.”

San Diego, CA
​Salad bars are the heart of the meal program at San Diego Unified School District. With the bountiful harvest of Southern California right on their doorstep, it’s easy to understand why. Since 2006, San Diego USD has offered salad bars to their 132,000+ students. Almost ten years later, the district has over 300 salad bars dispersed throughout 180 schools—31 of which were donated by Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools!  
The San Diego team is passionate about educational activities that bring farmers and their stories to the school too, not just their harvests. “When I initially came into the district, my experience was connecting kids to where their food comes from, and coordinating farm field trips,” says farm to school coordinator Kathryn Spencer. But working in the second largest district in California, getting the kids out to the farm is logistically very difficult. Spencer’s solution is bringing the farm to them in a Harvest of the Month video that she and her team produce and edit on an iPad.“It’s a way of taking our kids on a virtual farm field trip.” 

The three to four minute videos provide information about the farmer, how the produce is harvested, a history of the item and its nutritional properties. Spencer notes that in the schools where these videos shown by teachers regularly, there’s a real difference in how students respond to trying the new items on the salad bars. “Encouraging kids to try new fruits and vegetables is always something that needs to be thought out, reinvented, and approached in different ways.” Certainly, Spencer has come up with an innovative and engaging program for San Diego Unified School District.

Bristol, Vermont 
Walking away from the salad bar with lunch trays packed with vibrant veggies, students in Bristol, Vermont are exclaiming “I love those beet things!” or “I love that kale stuff,” all thanks to Kathy Alexander. Food Service Director of the Addison Northeast Food Service Cooperative (ANFSC). There seven salad bars in this school district—one in every cafeteria. The salad bars, which consist exclusively of fresh fruits and vegetables, have transformed the way her schools serve kids. Students head to the salad bar first, where they're excited by the range of options and the fact they’re allowed to make their own choices.

Alexander works alongside ten different local farms. Last year, the food service program set a goal of 15% local procurement – and they reached it! During the early fall months, between 30% and 50% of produce is local, from both school gardens and area farms. A seasonal favorite is the Tuscan Kale Salad: light lemon vinaigrette, breadcrumbs, and kale. (Hint: shred the kale to make it more appealing and palatable.)

The students notice when the produce is local. The unique brightness of the fresh vegetables catches their eyes.  Parsnip chips and kale chips are both hugely popular. Every ANFSC school has a fruit and vegetable garden, and each school’s curriculum includes agriculture in some way. Students are actively connected to their regional food shed, whether it’s through the school garden or a field trip to a farm just down the road.

At a local legislative meeting, where preserving farm to school funding was on the agenda, Alexander brought a seventh grade boy who had graduated from a local elementary school’s farm to school curriculum. “So, I just want to know what difference it has made in your life?” inquired the legislator to the boy. The student spoke enthusiastically about his views, “Now I think twice about my food. I think about where it came from. I think about who grew it. And I think about eating it so I don’t waste it.”

More than lunch: the academic benefits of farm to school

NFSN Staff Monday, October 12, 2015
This week’s Farm to School Month blogs are sponsored by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative representing more than 1,800 organic farmers across the United States. Committed to fostering health and wellness in the youth of America, Organic Valley is proud to support the National Farm to School Network.

Photo credit: Salem County Vocational Technical Schools

By Beth Feehan, New Jersey Department of Agriculture

We know farm to school activities are an effective approach for encouraging kids to try healthy foods, but what are the benefits of farm to school in the classroom? The short answer: there are many! With curriculum potential for courses from carpentry to English, farm to school education encompasses 21st century skills and offers engaging, hands-on learning experiences for all students. 

Salem County Career and Technical School in southern New Jersey is a shining example of the academic benefits of farm to school. With the guidance of FoodCorps service members and support from school administration, this high school went from zero farm to school programing to nearly 100% class participation within one year. What started as a simple school garden is now a cross-disciplinary learning space for nearly all of the school’s 600 students. 

For example, agriculture students dug the garden beds, and environmental science classes planted the vegetable seeds. The construction class created garden infrastructure by building a shed, trellises and compost bins. Art students designed garden signage, and the welding class built a blender bike so garden produce could be turned into smoothies. Now, English classes use the space for creative writing inspiration, and health students use the garden’s vegetables to learn about skeletal structures.  

Perhaps the most delicious classroom connection comes through the culinary arts department, whose kitchen classrooms are linked to the garden via an exterior door. Culinary students help harvest and transform the garden’s fresh produce into taste tests for their peers. Some of the dishes they’ve created include mustard-green pesto on bread made in the school’s bakery, and arugula-radish salad with local apples. The arugula salad received such a great response from students that the school’s food service director has added it to the lunch menu. 

Beyond the garden, the school teamed up with two other FoodCorps sites to design and build a Farm2You mobile classroom, which visits nearby schools to educate students about local food. The Farm2You van also sells fresh, local produce, which parents can buy when picking up their students from school. Automotive technology students helped build the vehicle from the shell of an old minibus, and computer-aided design and drafting students created a floor plan for the interior. Based on those plans, construction and welding students built the van’s interior shelving system. Graphic design students got involved by creating the Farm2You logo, and the agriculture students pitched in by contacting local farmers whose produce could be used to stock the van's shelves. 

During the 2014 Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week, New Jersey Department of Agriculture Secretary Doug Fisher visited the school to see all of theses great farm to school activities in action. While touring the school that day, it was clear just how much of an impact the school’s garden and farm to school programming have had on the school community. It has taught students about healthy eating and local agriculture, and united the entire school around a fun and impactful cross-disciplinary project with practical lessons that will stick with students for many years to come. 

As Salem County Career and Technical School has demonstrated, farm to school education enhances student learning across the board, from encouraging critical thinking and problem solving, to fostering creativity and collaboration. Farm to school is not only effective in getting kids excited about local food, but engages students in hands-on learning activities and lessons that go beyond school walls. This is just one school’s story, and there are thousands more. It’s how we know farm to school works, and it’s why we’re celebrating National Farm to School Month! 

With farm to school trainings, the learning goes both ways

NFSN Staff Friday, October 09, 2015
By Lihlani Skipper, Seed Change Program Associate


On a warm day in late September, teachers, school food service staff, administrators, and parents from across Kentucky gathered outside Boyle County High School for a special day of education. 

The students: Teams from Seed Change grantee schools hoping to jumpstart farm to school activities in their own communities.

The trainers: Ag-science teachers, University of Kentucky extensions agents, school nutrition staff and high schools students eager to share their passion for connecting kids to local food and farms. 

The subject: All things farm to school

With a packed schedule, these trainees spent the day learning about greenhouse hydroponics, high tunnel production and maintenance of raised bed gardens. They also met with the Food Service Director Judy Ellis, who highlighted the garden program and explained how garden produce is incorporated into school meals. In the afternoon, the trainees talked with University of Kentucky Horticultural experts and Cooperative Extension agents, who have been instrumental in helping Boyle County HS develop their program, choose appropriate equipment, and consider important issues of sustainability.

The training at Boyle County HS is just one component of the National Farm to School Network’s new Seed Change initiative in Kentucky, which aims to rapidly scale up farm to school activities across the state by connecting hundreds of farm to school advocates to share best practices, build community engagement and bring more local food into schools. It is one of several school-based initiatives across the country supported by the Walmart Foundation, which has as focus of improving child nutrition through school meal programs and access to nutrition education. 

This peer-learning model is bringing people together – some new to farm to school, some veterans – but all are learning from each other. As Toni Myers, Agricultural Science teacher and FFA advisor explained, “These trainings are a two-way street. In fact, I’ll be changing some of our own practices in the greenhouse and gardens because of ideas shared by the trainees!” 

Kara Shelton, a senior at Boyle County HS, is one of Toni’s “Garden Girls,” a group of FFA students that led a tour of the raised bed gardens and greenhouse hydroponic system at the Seed Change training. Not only are these students practicing their public speaking skills, building confidence and strengthening their job skills, but they’re also sharing their passions for working in the school garden and inspiring visiting teachers and school staff. 

“Before I worked in the garden, my idea of community service was limited. But now, I see that there are more ways to help in my community than I thought,” said Kara. “Last summer, I had the opportunity to deliver fresh produce we had grown in the school gardens to a weekend backpack program, which helps provide food for young students and families in need. This made working in our gardens a more personal experience for me. Before I was introduced to the families, all I could see when I went to the garden was twelve 8’x4’ raised beds, but now I’m able to connect the gardens to a person, and see the effect it had on other people. Seeing a little girl run up to me and hug my leg and say ‘Thank you so much for all my food!’ definitely added more fuel to my fire. It made me want to see the gardens grow. I wanted to produce as much as I could to feed this little girl and her family.” 

The schools that are part of Seed Change are empowering students to be better eaters, to be farmers, teachers, and leaders in their communities. These same students are, in turn, inspiring other schools and communities to build their own farm to school programs. 

The training at Boyle County School District was the first of 15 Seed Change trainings that will take place at six demonstration sites across Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Louisiana this fall and early winter. Seed Change grantees will use these trainings to help implement their projects and catalyze school gardens, take farm field trips, host local food tastings, and integrate experiential nutrition and agriculture education into school curriculum. 


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. Learn more about Seed Change here

Paving the way for our littlest eaters

NFSN Staff Thursday, October 08, 2015

By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Preschool Associate 

 Photo credit: Hot Springs Community Learning Center

As the farm to school movement grows, so does the work to connect our littlest eaters to healthy food and nutrition education in preschool and early education settings. Farm to preschool is a natural fit for the 0-5 set, as activities like taste tests, time spent in the garden, and lessons in simple food preparation can help young children form taste preferences and healthy eating habits that will impact their wellbeing for a lifetime.  

In celebrating farm to school this October, we also celebrate farm to preschool and the multitude of ways that children in preschool and early childcare settings are connecting with healthy, local food. We’re also recognizing the movers and shakers who are helping bring more farm to preschool to more young children around the country. Here are three innovative approaches to farm to preschool that are growing the movement and paving the way for a generation of healthy eaters: 

Reaching for the Stars with Farm to Preschool
At Hot Spring Community Learning Center in Hot Springs, North Carolina, farm to preschool is a way of life. Children harvest herbs and vegetables from the school garden for snacks and help prepare lunch by shucking corn and snapping green beans grown by local farmers. Students spend much of their day enjoying the garden and open yard, where a visiting herd of sheep is not an uncommon site. According to Co-director and Program Coordinator, Deborah DeLisle, farm to preschool activities not only provide delight and valuable educational opportunities to children, but these activities have also helped the center achieve a five-star rating under North Carolina’s star-rated licensing system. These stars indicate high quality child care programming and are achieved by meeting specific indicators related to areas such as learning environment, variety and quality of activities offered and parent engagement. Many states are moving towards rating systems like the one in North Carolina and, according to DeLisle, there is great opportunity for farm to preschool initiatives to contribute to achieving star-rating standards while providing abundant benefits to children, families and communities.   

Sharing Farm to Child Care Success with Peer Learning Groups 
Renewing the Countryside is in its second year of providing Farm to Child Care trainings across the state of Minnesota. This year, they have piloted small learning groups during the growing season as an innovative approach to providing ongoing technical support and much-desired peer learning opportunities to early care and education providers. Grace Brogan, Program and Communications Manager, cites these peer learning groups as an engaging way to enhance behavior change. Following an initial Farm to Child Care training, participants met throughout the summer to discuss ideas about connecting children with fresh foods from farms, gardens, and farmers markets. According to Brogan, it has been a great way to share recipes, gardening tips, and learning activities like this “Eat the Rainbow” activity from Kate Ziola's Heart to Heart Child Care. Participants also had the opportunity to visit nearby farms and child care gardens to gain inspiration and see best practices in action. 

Growing Farm to Preschool through Research 
To identify best practices in farm to preschool and demonstrate the potential benefits to a wider audience, research and evaluation are a vital part of promoting innovation and growing the farm to preschool movement. Dr. Betty T. Izumi of Portland State University is an important leader in farm to preschool research. Following recent publication in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, results of Dr. Izumi’s Harvest for Healthy Kids Pilot Study evaluation have garnered national attention. Dr. Izumi’s research evaluated the impact of food service changes – that is, offering increased amounts of fruits and vegetables – and implementation of the Harvest for Healthy Kids nutrition education curricula in Head Start centers in Portland, Oregon. Researchers found that students exposed to both food service changes and nutrition education were more likely to try new target foods, like carrots, cabbage, beets, and berries, and were also more likely to report liking those new foods. This important research adds even more support for farm to preschool initiatives and establishes Harvest for Healthy Kids as an impactful, evidence-based nutrition education resource that can be used by a wide variety of early child care and education setting.   

These examples of engaging educational opportunities, innovative trainings, and research and evaluation of best farm to preschool practices demonstrate that the movement continues to expand in exciting and impactful ways. Interested in bringing these innovations to your early child care program? Learn more about farm to preschool and access tips and tools by searching our resource library under the Preschool/Early Care setting. From shucking corn to eating the rainbow, there are hundreds of ways to connect our littlest eaters to healthy food, and keep this movement growing. 

Youth teaching youth: spreading a culture of wellness through peer education

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 06, 2015
By Miguel Villarreal, Novato Unified School District
  Photo Credit: Camp Cauliflower
With more than 32 years of experience in school food service, I’ve seen thousands of kids benefit from healthy food experiences in the cafeteria. It’s one of the perks of my job as Novato Unified School District’s (Calif.) food and nutrition director – I have the opportunity to teach kids about healthy eating by encouraging them to try new foods. While we work hard to educate our students about nutrition and wellness, we know that sometimes the best way to learn isn’t from teachers at all – but rather, from one’s own peers.  
In 2014, 16 year-old Elena Dennis approached me with a proposal along these lines. Inspired by a passion for cooking and interest in healthy eating, Elena had a vision to lead a free cooking camp during the summer to teach elementary students about the basics of healthy meal preparation. I didn’t hesitate in telling her that I would be glad to support her efforts. After all, her goal of inspiring kids to enjoy nutritious eating was my goal. With her passion for education and our schools’ commitment to healthy, local food in cafeterias, our combined efforts could be a winning combination for creating a culture of health and wellness in our schools. 

With our district’s Food and Nutritional Services kitchen secured as the camp location and a name selected, Camp Cauliflower took root. Elena began planning recipes, placing food orders, and arranging field trips to local farms. To keep the cost of participation free, Elena secured food donations from local grocery stores and organized a fundraising event. She also recruited two of her high school friends – Michala and Dani Cohen – to assist her as volunteers.

Once the tentative schedule was in place, Elena worked with three Novato elementary schools principles to recruit participants. While only five students – all 8 year-old girls – signed up that first year, Camp Cauliflower was a big hit. The campers spent the week exercising their culinary skills in a professional kitchen, cooking delicious meals from scratch and learning about the importance of a healthy, balanced diet. Elena sourced local, organic products for the campers to make homemade ravioli, salads, pizza, tostadas, guacamole, salsa, agua fresca and many more delicious recipes. 
The campers harvested some of the ingredients to make these tasty meals when they visited the College of Marin's Indian Valley Campus organic farm and garden. When they weren’t cooking or harvesting vegetables, the campers learned about nutrition through activities like blind taste tests and by learning to read food package labels. Every day, the campers widened their knowledge of healthful eating and expanded their appetites for delicious, nutritious food.     

As I watched over the first year of Camp Cauliflower, my excitement and belief in a future generation of passionate, healthy eaters was strengthened. Elena and her fellow high school volunteers were an inspiration to watch as they interacted with younger students. This experience of peer education not only provided these high school students an opportunity to exercise their leadership skills, but a vehicle through which they were able to become active, motivated stakeholders in our work to create a healthier environment in our schools and community. They’ve shown us that adults aren’t the only ones shaping the food movement – students are also providing vision, ideas, and leading the way.  

This past summer, Camp Cauliflower was in full swing again – this time with 2 sessions and 30 participants – where Elena continued to educate and inspire even more of her younger schoolmates. If the campers’ excitement was any indication, we have many budding peer educators in our community who will be passing on their food knowledge to their classmates. Youth to youth, our students are inspiring each other, and cultivating a community of healthy habits and wellness throughout our schools.    
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