Making school gardens accessible

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Anna Mullen, Digital Media Associate

School gardens are one of the three core elements of farm to school programs, and the benefits of these green spaces are endless. Gardens create positive learning environments, increase children’s willingness to try new fruits and vegetables, and serve as a valuable tool for engaging students in a number of academic subjects.  

Moreover, school gardens can be engaging learning spaces for all students. They function as interdisciplinary classrooms that welcome every type of learner, regardless of age or ability. Unlike traditional classrooms, school gardens help level the playing field for students with physical disabilities, learning and behavior challenges, and other special classroom needs by empowering everyone to contribute to the process of growing food from seed to harvest.

But accessibility in the garden doesn’t only mean wider paths and raised beds. Designing your school garden as a space of exploration and learning for all students means paying attention to the details. Whether your school garden is well established or just in the planning phase, there are easy ways to make sure these green growing spaces are learning places for every student.  

We recently spotted this list of tips for creating accessible school gardens and garden activities on the National Gardening Association’s resource website, KidsGardening.org. Here are three of our favorite ideas that can be implemented at any stage of your school garden’s growth:

  • Consider all five senses
    Tasty garden treats and visual beauty are top factors when picking out plants for any garden. But more of our senses can be engaged! Activate students’ sense of smell by planting edible flowers and highly fragrant herbs. Want students to experience the garden through touch? Incorporate a variety of plant textures – smooth, hairy, delicate, woody. And, don’t forget sounds! Add a wind chime, water feature or feeder to attract singing birds.
  • Adapt garden tools
    Be intentional in making a variety of garden tools available for all body types and ability levels so that every student can contribute and learn in your school’s garden. Have tools of different lengths and sizes, of varying weights, and kneeling pads stocked in your shed. KidsGardening.org recommends having Velcro straps handy to secure tools to students’ arms, which can help distribute the weight and steady tools in their hands.
  • Go vertical
    For some students, reaching up may be easier than stretching out. There are lots of designs for vertical gardens that make the most of your available square footage on the ground and may be easier for some students to reach than traditional garden beds. Try vertical trellises for vining plants like cucumbers and squash, or plant a wall of leafy greens out of discarded wooden pallets.

To learn more about starting and maintaining school gardens or incorporating school gardens into the classroom with lesson plans, check out the great resources available from our partners at SlowFood USA and The Edible Schoolyard Project.

Are there ways you’ve made your school garden an accessible learning space for all? We’d love to hear about it! Share your ideas with us via our story form, or connect with us on Twitter and Facebook to let us know how your school garden is growing.  

Ramping up local in upstate New York

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Anna Mullen, Digital Media Associate

Saranac Lake High School students harvest celeriac at Fledging Crow Vegetables Farm.       (Photo courtesy of SLHS Green Storm)

Before Saranac Lake Central School District (Saranac Lake, N.Y.) was awarded a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant, local produce in the cafeteria was rare. But serving local foods on special occasions like Farm to School Month had been successful at getting students excited to try new vegetables, so Food Service Director Ruth Pino was eager to do more.

“I realized I could help young people learn about good food and healthy eating by serving them real, fresh food,” Pino says. “At our school, 36 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch. But the real challenge is that the district is very rural and spread out, so when students are hungry, there are not many options for accessing good, local food, aside from school.” Plus, she notes, “Farm to school is also about supporting local farmers, and there are many in our area.”

Beginning this fall, three local farmers will supply the district’s five school with fresh, local produce including carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, onions and potatoes. Fresh fruit will be brought in from a nearby orchard. Other relationships are thriving as well, such as with Paul Smith’s College, whose culinary students teamed up with Pino this spring to prepare and serve locally raised chicken to the district’s students. “It’s helping support our community,” Pino says, “and students are getting excited when they see that we have new foods for them to try.”

Less than 150 miles west of Saranac Lake, a similar initiative is taking root in New York’s Watertown City School District. In partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, Watertown was also awarded a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant for FY 2015. With the grant, Watertown set goals of incorporating more locally grown foods into its meal programs to improve student health and link nutrition to lifelong learning.  

In addition to introducing new local foods in the cafeteria, the district’s five elementary schools launched a harvest of the month initiative, where students not only learn about and try new local foods, but also meet the farmers who produce them. “A local dairy farmer came in February with a demonstration cow, and there was a butter-making station,” district Farm to School Coordinator April Neujean said. “The state dairy princess came, too!”

Students at North Elementary School learn about cow from local farmer Ron Kuck during February’s Harvest of the Month activities. (Photo courtesy of WCSD Farm to School)

The district’s middle and high school students are learning about local food systems as well, with guest lectures on hydroponics, beneficial and invasive bugs, and robotic tilling. Furthermore, the district has planted its first school garden, giving students the opportunity to engage in growing their own food. As Neujean explains, “This education has been a good way to help students become excited about the food changes in the cafeteria. When kids have a farm to school program, they have a positive attachment to food because they know where it comes from.”

Getting kids excited about healthy eating isn’t the only benefit of these farm to school programs. What makes farm to school at Watertown and Saranac Lake school districts impressive is their drive for collaboration and growing the movement throughout upstate New York. “The community support and excitement has been remarkable,” Neujean said. The two districts have worked together to share ideas and build capacity for making more local procurement possible. And, Saranac Lake is actively encouraging nearby school districts to join them in farm to school activities. By encouraging more schools to buy local, the districts are helping open the doors to new institutional markets for local family farmers.

Thanks to these two USDA Farm to School grantees, an entire region is poised for local food transformation. Their initiatives are helping kids develop healthy eating habits, providing new markets for farmers and building up strong partnerships that foster vibrant communities. These programs are not only ramping up local procurement in their cafeterias, but also laying the groundwork for schools across upstate New York to go local.  That’s a delicious win for students, an economic win for farmers, and an energizing win for all of upstate New York.

Transforming lunch, building community with a USDA Planning Grant

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Anna Mullen, Digital Media Associate

“I've seen the effect of farm to school activities in our school and in our community at large. Kids are eating better because the food is better, but the way the community has come together to support it and the various partnerships we've created since receiving the USDA Farm to School Planning Grant have been amazing."

- Susi Jones, Executive Director for Julian Pathways, Julian, Calif.

Chef Jeremy Manely (left) and Julian Pathways students tour “Down the Road” Farm, where local produce is grown for school lunches. (Photos courtesy of Tricia Elisara)

Farm to school at Julian Pathways started with an unused plot of asphalt. Parents were the first to suggest the asphalt be cleared and a school garden planted, and it didn’t take long for students and teachers to follow. The new garden at Julian Pathways became a living laboratory for students, and it sparked efforts to extend nutrition and agriculture education to the lunchroom. Six years later, farm to school at Julian Pathways has become a whole community affair.

As Julian Pathways Executive Director Susi Jones explains, expanding farm to school beyond the garden and into the lunchroom was not an easy task. Without facilities to cook meals or room to build a kitchen, Julian Pathways had served frozen, pre-packaged lunches. “At the time, we felt it was the best option,” she said. “But we also felt our students were getting the bad end of the deal. It was not good food, and we were not nurturing our students.”

Although students were learning about local, fresh food in the garden, they weren’t connecting with healthy eating in the cafeteria. So in 2012, the Julian Union Elementary School District applied for a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant to identify ways to secure local, fresh and delicious meals for their students. Julian Pathways, the student and family support program for the district, coordinates the farm to school program. Alumnus and local chef Jeremy Manley jumped at the opportunity to cater lunches at his alma mater. Jeremy’s on the Campus – a play on his restaurant Jeremy’s on the Hill – pays particular attention to sourcing its food locally and students are gobbling up the fresh fruit and vegetables options.



“January was broccoli month, and I over heard two four-year-old girls say, ‘There’s broccoli in the salad! I love my broccoli raw!’ What kind of four-year-olds talk like this without exposure in the garden?” –Susi Jones, Julian Pathways Executive Director

Students in Club Jaguar's afterschool garden class eat the Harvest of the Month – broccoli – that they planted and tended. (Photo courtesy of Tricia Elisara)

The USDA Farm to School Planning Grant enabled Julian Pathways to explore what farm to school activities best fit their community, and it helped build a creative partnership with a local chef that grew to include local farmers, small businesses and a vibrant sense of community. Their next goal is to plant a large heritage apple orchard that will provide local fruit for students, as well as serve the entire community with jobs, re-invigorating the town’s historic apple industry.  

Julian Pathways has done an incredible job supporting these innovative and burgeoning new partnerships, but more must be done to realize their full potential.  “We are such a small district, and there’s not a lot of money,” Jones explained. “Our reimbursements are small, and we really are reaching and scrounging for funding.” To grow the program’s infrastructure, Julian Pathways applied for a USDA Farm to School Implementation Grant. But because of such high demand across the country, Julian Pathways was not awarded these funds. Nationally, demand for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program is five times higher than available federal funding.

Julian Pathways’ story exemplifies the power of farm to school to support child nutrition, strengthen local economies and build vibrant communities. All across the country, people like Susi Jones and Jeremy Manley want the opportunity to experience the positive impacts of farm to school in their own communities. That’s why we are asking legislators to strengthen the highly successful USDA Farm to School Grant Program by fully incorporating the Farm to School Act of 2015 into the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization package this year.

Will you join us? Show your support by adding your name to our citizen sign-on letter, and let’s keep farm to school programs like Julian Pathways’ growing strong!

The National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.