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Planting the Seed with Farm to School

TBAISD, MLUI, FoodCorps lead training for northwest Michigan teachers

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Teachers get their hands messy making a kale salad for their own lunch at a Farm to School training session. 

A plastic dishpan of potting soil, a cup of seeds and some small plastic baggies made their way around a conference room at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.

These simple materials evolved into tiny greenhouses and a mini-science lesson for teachers to engage their students on local food and agriculture.   

The Michigan Land Use Institute, TBAISD and FoodCorps teamed up to plant this seed—literally and figuratively—that local food and agriculture can be an integral part of the classroom.

“We know teachers are extraordinarily busy, working to meet state and national teaching standards, and that there are a lot of demands for your time. That’s why we’ve worked hard to integrate farm to school with those standards, so it supports your educational goals,” said Diane Conners, MLUI’s senior policy specialist who directs MLUI’s Farm to School program. “In an era with such skyrocketing childhood obesity, farm to school programming simultaneously engages students in healthy eating and fun, effective learning.”

Conners was joined by a four-person team of Farm to School educators, including Pam Bardenhagen, Michelle Worden, and FoodCorps service members Kirsten Gerbatsch and Daniel Marbury, who all work in MLUI’s program; and other community resources. They shared curriculum, school garden, local agriculture, farm product fundraisers, and classroom-to-cafeteria ideas they’ve developed and tested in the classroom with the help of teachers and others throughout the region.

Some examples: Divide up apples for a tasty lesson in fractions for elementary students. Use corn to spur a discussion of Native American heritage. Create a taste test using different varieties of carrots, and tally the results in a graph for a quick math lesson. Present any new food to the students and ask them to write out their scientific observations on smell, taste, appearance and even sound using objective and subjective language.

“You’ve never heard a class as silent as when they all take a bite of lettuce or kale and they all begin writing away their observations,” said Marbury.

Students’ exposure to new fruits and vegetables makes it easier for them to make better choices in the cafeteria, too. Gerbatsch described how butternut squash was a tough sell on the lunch line at Traverse Heights Elementary, but after a couple months of incorporating the local food into lessons, kids were much more willing to add some to their trays.

“When the kids came to the cafeteria, they’d already been exposed to the squash. We said, ‘Alright, you have to vote, you have to let me know which one is better,’” she said. “That power of choice, as well as exposure in the classroom, totally changed the experience….it really is a big game changer for food selections in the cafeteria—even for something that had not been an option in the kids’ minds just the week before,”  Gerbatsch said.

Teachers and food service directors also shared their own experiences and Farm to School successes with their colleagues.

“It is such a gratifying opportunity to have Kirsten, Daniel, Michele and Pam,” said Gary Derrigan, food service director for Traverse City Area Public Schools. “Our staff is taxed to the max…. To have someone help and have opportunities in the classroom and be supportive of what we are trying to do is immensely satisfying.”

Janis Groomes, food service director and head cook at Northport Public School, described how their school garden has changed things in the cafeteria.

“Last year we started our school gardens … we had a few carrots and greens, and when we put them on the salad bar, the kids lit up: ‘I planted that.’ ‘We harvested that.’ ‘I tasted that.’ ‘I know what it tastes like,’” Grooms said. “Farm to school has been the saving grace in a changing food service program.”

The teachers also had a chance to get their hands messy making their own kale salad for lunch. Gerbatsch and Marbury divided them into groups, highlighting how dividing responsibilities can work when introducing food to the classroom.

“Thinking about that division of tasks is helpful,” Marbury said. “You can rotate as you prepare different foods so that each student gets to prepare something, but you also get that efficiency of dividing up the tasks.”

Farm to School programs have grown exponentially in the past 15+ years, from just two nationwide in 1996 to more than 12,000 in all 50 states today—including many in northern Michigan.  MLUI, with FoodCorps, a National Farm to School Grant, and funding from the W.K. Kellogg, Herrington-Fitch Family and Aline Underhill Orten foundations, is working in 14 school buildings and eight districts in four counties.

Conners hopes this momentum continues to grow, and that the training session was just the beginning of a network of teachers and food staff dedicated to the benefits of an expansive farm to school program. TBAISD has already launched a new online social networking tool to keep the teachers connected.

“With this in-service, we want to create a community of educators among those of you in this room today,” Conners explained. “We hope to create a shared knowledge base, and a network for developing farm to school education in the region.”

For more information on Farm to School, visit mlui.org/farmtoschool

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