Honoring Black History and Leadership in Farm to School

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Anna Mullen, Communications Director

February is Black History Month, a dedicated time to pay attention to the power and resilience of the Black community and to celebrate the many Black leaders on whose shoulders we stand. For the National Farm to School Network, it’s also a time to recommit ourselves to being honest about the racism and inequities that persist within our field of work, and to reaffirm our commitment to working towards a vision of equity and justice. Listening, learning and reflecting on the histories, stories and wisdom of Black leaders in the food movement is one step in this journey, and we invite you to join us. Here are a few recommendations to get you started:

EXPLORE: Black History Month Food and Farm Justice resource lists - HEAL Alliance

READ: Black Farmers Are Embracing Climate-Resilient Farming, by Leah Penniman - Civil Eats

WATCH: Malik Yankini on Food, Race and Justice - TEDxMuskegon

LISTEN: Karen Washington on Food Justice, Land Stewardship and Legacy Work - WhyHunger

MEET: The Black farm to school pioneers, leaders and kids in the picture above!

Top row:

  • Betti Wiggins, Officer of Nutrition Services at Houston Independent School District and former NFSN Advisory Board member.
  • Students at Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C. growing hydroponic lettuce and tomatoes.
  • LaDonna Redmond, founder and executive director of The Campaign for Food Justice Now.
  • A young gardener picking peas at the former K Street Farm in Washington, D.C.

Middle row:

  • Students enjoying a taste test at John Adams Elementary School in Riverside, Calif.
  • Glyen Holmes, founder of the New North Florida Cooperative, and a farm to school movement trailblazer. He's been helping small farmers in Florida sell to schools since the 1990s!
  • A little gardener learning about plants in Tennessee.
  • Rodney Taylor, director of Food and Nutrition Services for Fairfax County Public Schools, pioneer of "farm to school salad bars" in the 1990s, and former NFSN Advisory Board member.

Bottom row:

These are just a few of the many Black trailblazers, innovators and movement makers who are helping power farm to school efforts nationwide. There are many more - including on our staff, Advisory Board, in our network of Core and Supporting Partners, and others - who we also celebrate this month.

While there are just a few days left of Black History Month 2020, our commitment to listening to and lifting up Black voices and leadership in farm to school doesn't stop at the end of February. Every day is the right day for being honest about and addressing the racism and inequities in our work. (You can read more about National Farm to School Network's commitment to centering our work in equity here.) In March and April, our staff will be participating in Food Solutions New England's 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge - sign up to join us. And, we encourage you join us in continuing to honor the Black leaders who have given, and continue to give, boundless wisdom, vision, creativity and commitment to the farm to school movement.

Learning How to Gro More Good Indoors: An Update on Our Pilot Project

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Students at Amidon-Bowen Elementary in Washington, D.C. excited about the fast growth of their salad greens.

By Jenileigh Harris,  Program Associate

With a goal of connecting more students across the country to indoor gardening opportunities, the Scotts-Miracle Gro Foundation, Hawthorne Gardening Company and National Farm to School Network have launched a pilot project to integrate hydroponic growing systems into classrooms and science curricula this school year.

Halfway into the pilot year the hydroponic gardens are overflowing and teachers, students and families are seeing the positive impacts in and outside of the classroom. Students are demonstrating an increased interest in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) concepts, as well as an increase in applying critical thinking skills. The hydroponic systems have also enhanced family and community engagement and fostered student behavioral and social-emotional development.

Across all pilot schools, the hydroponic systems are encouraging students from pre-school to middle school to take ownership over the garden, deciding what to grow, monitoring the system daily, and leading care and harvest. According to teachers, student ownership of the hydroponic units has translated into improved attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors related to healthy eating, improved their knowledge about gardening, agriculture and food systems and provided valuable opportunities for peer learning.

Most classrooms are using their pepper, tomato, herb and salad green harvests in taste tests while teachers are incorporating plant parts, hydroponic vs. soil garden needs and life cycle lessons into existing STEM, food system, and/or nutrition curricula. At Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C., students in a FoodPrints classroom and lab incorporate their hydroponic produce into meals and snacks they prepare as a part of their cooking and gardening STEM curriculum. Recently, students used their hydroponically grown tomatoes to create a salsa for sweet potato quesadillas. “Our special education class has taken ownership of the hydroponic grow station. They put it together, take care of it and monitor the growth. It’s been a great experience for them,” describes Kimball Elementary School.

At P.S. 214 in the Bronx, New York sixth grade students had the opportunity to teach second grade students about the hydroponic garden. The sixth graders did a shared reading about plants as a system, and then created hydroponic bags to observe the growth of a lima bean.

A classroom lesson, “Donde esta la tierra?” (“Where is the soil?”), at Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C. in which students compared and contrasted plant needs in a soil-based garden versus a hydroponic garden in both English and Spanish.

One of the things that makes the hydroponic systems such a great learning and teaching tool for plant life cycles and other STEM concepts is that they provide relatively instant results for both students and teachers. “Students can see the plants from seed to plant in record time. Seeds produce plants [which] produces tomatoes. They know that but to see it without waiting months is amazing. They run to the grow station every time they enter the classroom,” describes Kimball Elementary School.

And students’ general inquiry and interest in scientific process is increasing. “I have heard very fascinating ‘what if’ questions from my students like ‘what if we can grow a whole farm of vegetables just like this?’ which has led me to incidental exploration of other science avenue topics such as sustainability, pros vs. cons, and water as a resource,” reports Amidon-Brown Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

At Kimball Elementary, students counted the yellow flowers on their tomato plants in anticipation of the plant’s fruits. “They are very excited to see if we can produce as many tomatoes as predicted,” describes a Kimball Elementary teacher.

Students at Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C. taking care of their hydroponic tomatoes.

Many of the schools have had success engaging families and community with the hydroponic systems. Some schools have included families in the harvesting and tasting of the hydroponic plants while others have placed the unit in a shared space where the whole school community can observe, ask questions, and share in the excitement with the students. “We teach a family cooking class on Monday afternoons. Parents who might not have ever seen a garden or be interested in growing plants ask so many questions about the hydroponic system. It sparks conversations about the plants we are growing, healthy eating and how to cook those plants in a non-threatening informative way,” describes Kimball Elementary School.

Teachers have noticed marked changes in their students such as increased overall awareness and attentiveness to academic responsibilities as well as demonstration of social-emotional development. NFSN staff observed a young student at Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C. who had been struggling to concentrate in the classroom become much more engaged when the class visited the hydroponics unit, eagerly asking and answering questions.  At Sunrise Middle School in San Jose, California, students have started managing the hydroponic care schedule and consistently remind their teacher who is on deck to be the weekly garden helpers.

Students at Community School 134 in the Bronx, NY taste testing and measuring their recently harvested greens.

Once spring arrives, many classes have hopes to transplant their tomatoes and peppers to outdoor gardens while others are planning to plant a new round of hydroponic pods at the same time they plant seeds, creating additional opportunities to explore STEM concepts, to encourage family and community engagement and support continued social-emotional development.

Teachers anticipate the positive impacts to grow as they continue to integrate the hydroponics systems into lessons and families become more engaged in the delicious results.