By Betsy Rosenbluth, Project Director, Vermont FEED

Photo credit: Vermont FEED

Farm to school activities can be a great way to engage young learners - especially kids who may not be fully engaged in the classroom. Sharon Elementary School in Sharon, Vt., has been using farm to school education for almost 10 years, and has developed a reputation for providing meaningful learning experiences to preK-6th grade students through a variety of place based experiences. Farm to school activities like digging into the school garden, farm visits, and nutrition education, are at the forefront of these experiences.

Keenan Haley, a third grade teacher at Sharon, looks to engage students in learning activities that will meet current educational standards. “Engagement is the key. How do I engage all students in a way that is meaningful and productive? Educators are always looking for ‘the topic’ that will spark a student’s interest, ‘the topic’ that will engage student in reading, writing, math, social studies, science, art, music, PE and other disciplines. I've found that farm to school education, along with overall health and wellness education, is THE topic.”

Through the lens of food and agriculture, students at Sharon design gardens, assess the value of local compared to nonlocal foods, calculate carbon footprint, measure caloric intake, use measuring skills while cooking, and practice business planning as opportunities to apply their mathematical learning. In science, students study the chemical makeup of certain foods and their interactions with the human body. In social studies, students study the history of foods and their impact on culture. If the possibilities seem endless, it’s because they are.

Barrett Williams, the principal of Sharon, acknowledges how farm to school has helped all students feel successful. “Students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting generally thrive when concepts are taught and reinforced through a variety of modalities that allow students to touch, feel, and create.  At the same time, high functioning students can be challenged to think about content in much greater depth. Regardless, the outcomes are similar in nature, with students developing a sense of ownership of the work they have completed.  Ultimately, this format and structure allows educators to address perhaps the most important lesson we teach, which is social responsibility and citizenship.”

This sense of ownership is also at the core of the Vermont Jr Iron Chef competition, now coming up on its 10th year of challenging middle and high school students to create healthy, local dishes that inspire school meal programs. More than 3,000 Vermont teenagers have participated in this culinary competition, where they’ve learned healthy cooking skills, how to source local food, develop their own recipes, and work as a team to prepare a dish for an annual competition with 60 other school teams.  

Twin Valley High School in the small town of Wilmington, Vt., brings home a ribbon almost every year.  Head coach Lonnie Paige, Food Service Director for the school, thinks one key to their success is that students have ownership over the process. The event has become so popular that the school now hosts its own qualifying event to determine which teams will go on to the statewide competition. The runoff is a large, community-supported event. “I get local chefs and celebrities to be the judges,” Paige explains. “Parents volunteer as runners and assist with whatever else needs to be done.” Teams also visit local farms and food producers. “We show them how things are grown and made,” Paige continues. “They experience for themselves how much better local food is.”  

Hands on learning - whether growing food in a school garden, cooking in the Junior Iron Chef competition, or running taste tests in the cafeteria, all have in common a focus on student driven change and transformation of school culture. As one high school student so eloquently said about farm to school when testifying in the Vermont Statehouse, “It makes me think twice. Think twice about where my food came from, what it does for my body and what it takes to get it on my plate.” This is the transformation we desire for every child.

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