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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! 


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