When Groundwork Is the Homework

Farm-To-School Programs Connect Kids With Food

By Vicki Spencer, Master Gardener

Over the past two decades, farm-to-school programs have exploded across the country. Originally, they were intended to support community-based farmers while introducing students to the importance of nutrition. Students from preschools to high schools were enthusiastic about the experiences, and their physical and mental health improved as well. These benefits have led to increased classroom and community participation, government funding, and foundation support. 

Three core elements of farm-to-school programs are 1) procuring locally sourced foods; 2) designing curriculum to educate students about agriculture, food, health, and nutrition; and 3) providing hands-on experiences to connect students with food. 

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from farm-to-school programs. When schools incorporate local products into their meals, new markets emerge and students enjoy more fresh fruits and vegetables. Kids learn that food doesn’t originate in grocery stores; it comes from the hands of dedicated, hardworking farmers who benefit economically from the partnerships. This real-life connection to food sources may also spark an interest in agriculture, which may lead to students’ future career choices. 

Community support is critical for schools to initiate and maintain farm and garden programs. For instance, Garden to Table, a Boulder County nonprofit, forms partnerships to provide everything needed for garden programs. Teachers develop the curriculum that extends beyond planting and watering. Garden to Table experiential learning programs “foster a connection to nature, an understanding of important ecological concepts, and an ethic of environmental stewardship,” according to its website. Students are refueled and more energized when they return to the traditional classroom. 

Jefferson County has developed a website to illustrate how garden programs can be used across multiple disciplines. Gardening as a form of experiential education extends beyond scientific observation and the life cycle of plants. It can stimulate lessons about water, soil, weather, and environmental impacts. It can be used to practice mathematical functions like calculating how many seeds to plant in a pot or creating graphs to show how different fertilizers contribute to plant growth. Gardening can teach practical and problem-solving skills to students planning a garden schedule. Gardening can improve language skills and stimulate the imagination when students read garden books, keep journals, and draw plants and flowers. 

Teachers have designed gardening curriculum that meets state and district level standards. For example, some use plants and food to explore history and different cultures. Students have replicated gardens that American colonists relied on for survival in the New World. Students have learned the significance of Victory Gardens in overcoming food shortages during WWII. Some have planted potatoes to see how easily Europeans adopted and grew this Peruvian food staple before over-dependence on one crop and blight led to famine and mass migration to America. 

This is just a small sample of the many lessons teachers have designed around farms and gardens to make education more interesting and relevant. It’s no wonder farm-to-school and garden-based learning has blossomed across Colorado. Even if you don’t have kids in school, you can get involved in the movement by contacting local schools, nonprofits, and garden organizations. 

Master Gardener Vicki Spencer has an eclectic background in conservation, water, natural resources and more.