By Melissa Terry, MPA Candidate specializing in Food Policy, University of Arkansas Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences, and Emily English, Arkansas State Lead, National Farm to School Network. Terry and English are co-Chairs of the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention’s Access to Healthy Foods Workgroup
Photos courtesy of Melissa Terry
Each state faces its own food security challenges, but Arkansas’s children find themselves particularly in the crosshairs of childhood obesity and childhood hunger statistics. In 2014, Arkansas was ranked as one of the top 5 states with the highest rates of food-insecure children, and approximately 1 in 5 children are obese. When combined, these two factors can be early indicators of long-term health risks, but also, an opportunity for community leaders to cultivate an environment where the healthy choice is the easy choice.
Washington Elementary School in Fayetteville, Ark., offers a shining example of how farm to school strategies can help cultivate healthy learning environments and positively impact the health and wellness of children. A garden-based learning program is used to engage all 325 kindergarten through 4th grade students in a variety of experiential academic lessons tied to grade-level benchmark standards – including activities inside classrooms, in the lunchroom, and in the school’s three gardens.
Classroom lessons include interactive activities like making Rainbow Wraps with kindergarten students, pouring over the latest issue of ChopChop Magazine with 1st graders, learning about pollinators by creating Monarch butterfly nurseries in 2nd grade classrooms, facilitating Math in the Garden lessons with 3rd graders, and exploring USDA Garden Detective curriculum with 4th graders. After school programs include Washington’s robust Gardening Club, which is filled to capacity with 30 students. Additionally, each grade level participates in a farm to school field trip to a local farm.
“Washington Elementary School’s garden-based initiatives are making a difference in our school and have enriched student learning experiences. The Fayetteville School District’s Farm to School program benefits all students regardless of the demographic background,” says Ms. Ashley McLarty, Washington Elementary Principal.
Cafeteria lessons include a rotating “School Lunch in the Garden” initiative where one class each week visits the school garden for a lunch tray picnic. Activities also include data collection of Harvest of the Month taste test result, and participation in food waste reduction incentives. According to Washington’s Garden-Based Learning Coordinator, Melissa Terry, “The unsung hero of classrooms and learning environments is the school cafeteria. What the students learn there, whether intentional or incidental, shapes the way they perceive healthy food choices for the rest of their lives.”
One of the school’s most innovate farm to school initiatives has been piloting a student food plate waste audit in early 2015, in partnership with the Washington County Environmental Affairs Department, the EPA, the USDA, and four other county schools. In this pilot, students engaged in a five day plate waste audit that measured plate waste by categories, including fruit/vegetables, all other food waste, milk waste, other liquid waste and unopened items.
Results from the audit reflected an opportunity for Washington to make changes to help students reduce their food waste, including the introduction of 8 oz water cups next to the water fountain and the installation of a share table for unopened items, such as milk cartons, fruits and packaged food. Over the course of the 2015-2016 school year students reduced their milk waste by 20% and shared various unopened lunch meal items (e.g. milks, apples, oranges, etc.) as afternoon snacks with other students.
To further its food waste reduction efforts, the school also launched an innovative “Farm to Store to School” partnership with Natural Grocers. Initiated in 2015, the store donates its surplus produce to the Washington Elementary twice a week, where it is used to make fresh, healthy snacks for students in afterschool programs. Produce picked up during holidays and during the summer break is delivered to the local Salvation Army kitchen, where meals are served twice daily and often include Washington Elementary students and their families.
Arkansas Farm to School seeks to support schools and communities as they strive to fully engage students in their food system and cultivate emerging leaders empowered to participate in their food choices. And these efforts support the local economy, too. According to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census, local and regional procurement practices have resulted in $1,255,960 of direct financial impact for Arkansas' food producers. Emily English, National Farm to School Network Arkansas State Lead, says, “As we support schools and communities like Washington Elementary in Fayetteville and share successes and best practices across the state, we build a network of change agents young and old – students, parents, school staff, growers and community members - united in our efforts.”
For more information about Washington Elementary School’s farm to school activities, check out this Prezi featuring different types of student engagement, and this recording of a USDA webinar featuring Washington’s school-based food recovery partnerships.