Guest blog by Marcus Glenn, Houston Independent School District

I am Marcus Glenn, an agriculture educator with Houston Independent School District’s (ISD) Nutrition Services—Food and Agriculture Literacy Department (FAL), where I lead an interdisciplinary food literacy program that increases students' agriculture, nutrition, and culinary literacy. As a current member of the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) Racial Equity Learning Lab Cohort, I have had the privilege of sharing space with others involved in various aspects of farm to school. Together, we engage in discussions about issues, ideas, and stories within the movement. Now, I want to share the story of Houston ISD’s Nutrition Services, and how we go beyond the plate to help students and families develop more than a consumer relationship with their food. 

The thing I love and am also vexed by with farm to school is that there is no ideal model. This allows for a lot of creativity by program designers, but also leaves for a lack of guidance from state and federal partners. Fortunately, there are organizations out there like USDA Food & Nutrition Service, NFSN, Extension, the Whole Kids Foundation, School Garden Support Organization, the Junior Master Gardener program, Farm Bureau, and others that provide great resources and support for farm to school education.

Farm to school at Houston ISD currently includes two unique programs that help students increase their nutrition and agriculture literacy. We administer the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program at 85 schools, serving a fresh fruit or vegetable tasting to approximately 45,000 students. This serving is also paired with nutrition education to encourage students to eat the fruits and vegetables when they see them in the National School Lunch Program. 

Additionally, our Get Growing Houston program is an interdisciplinary food literacy program that is rooted in agriculture and nutrition education, and we add culinary education to make it fun (who wants to learn about food without eating it?!). Get Growing Houston has grown over the past four years from a blank 6.5-acre plot and a program at an elementary, middle and high school, to where we currently serve 110 out of the 274 schools in our district. This program provides professional development and resources such as seeds, soil, beds, and curriculum for teachers. We also host field trips to our Food and Agriculture Literacy Center at Mykawa Farm, where last year we engaged 1,572 students in farm to school education and harvested 1,500 pounds of produce.   

While we have had some great growth in the past two years, I am excited about the next few years to incorporate lessons learned from running the program and collaborating with our partners to make us better. I know that without our federal, state, and private philanthropic partners, we would not be where we are today. Aside from USDA-Food and Nutrition Service and Texas Department of Agriculture as our regulating partners, some of our other partners are USDA-Texas Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the Whole Kids Foundation, the Mission Continues and the Junior Master Gardener Program from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, and Texas Farm Bureau. 

These five entities have seen the value of the work we do and have supported us tremendously. For example, the Whole Kids Foundation provided us with private philanthropic dollars to lay the foundation of our farm—without their initial investment, we would not be where we currently are. We have also had the opportunity to develop a long-term conservation plan for the farm with support from Texas-NRCS and to serve as a training location for Urban Conservationists, who also awarded a Conservation Innovation Grant to allow us to install an ADA pathway at our farm to make it more accessible for students and community members with disabilities. 

For several years, The Mission Continues has provided funding and volunteers for different projects that we needed at the farm: covered teaching pavilion, shade sails, raised beds, benches, shed, and compost bays. We also had the honor of serving as a national training site for graduates of one of their community service leadership programs. 

Another way we have improved our farm to school programming was by identifying a need for and developing a gardening curriculum. In a district survey about garden programs, over 100 schools responded saying they were interested in gardening but needed help with identifying curriculum and other resources to help them have a robust garden education program. With this data, we went to our friends at Junior Master Gardener and we worked to standardize the program across the district for early childhood and elementary schools. Currently, we are working with Texas A&M’s Department of Agriculture, Leadership, Education and Communications to enhance middle school focused garden-based education. 

Lastly, we have been able to develop a wonderful relationship with the Texas Farm Bureau and utilize the “Food Dollar” to show students where in the food chain their money goes. This partnership has also allowed us to provide teachers with more access to resources and opportunities to enhance the work they are doing to educate students about food, agriculture, and natural resource careers. 

This has been an overview of the efforts of Houston ISD’s Nutrition Services to go beyond the plate and ensure that students and families develop more than a consumer relationship with their food. The key takeaway is that our program is gaining traction not only because of what we as a department have done on our own, but because of the partnerships and relationships we have cultivated to help our kids eat better food, connect to the food they eat, and understand how it got to them. To those currently involved in farm to school, I encourage all of us to push ourselves to go beyond the status quo to continue growing and advancing the movement.