July 7, 2015
For many schools with summer sessions, June means farm to school activities running in high gear. At Walker Jones Education Campus in the nation’s capital, summer brings students outside and onto the farm (“K Street Farm”) for lessons in agriculture, food, and nutrition while allowing them to enjoy an abundance of local food through its school meal program. Staff from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), along with staff from the National Farm to School Network (NFSN), who worked with DC Greens to help to arrange the tour, made a return visit to Walker Jones to see the school’s “farm to summer” programming in action, following up from a visit in 2014.
Walker Jones Education Campus: year-round farm to school activities
Running from August to June, Walker Jones Education Campus is a pre-k through 8th grade public school located in northeast Washington, DC with 460 students that provides breakfast, lunch, and dinner to its students. During the summer, that number grows to 500 students. The school runs a host of farm to school activities, from having locally sourced items incorporated into its school meal program to holding taste tests and incorporating school garden activities into its learning opportunities for students.
A school farm grows in DC
The tour started on the K Street Farm with a hands-on agriculture and nutrition lesson with summer school kindergarteners. The farm holds four vegetable fields, a variety of fruit trees, a perennial herb garden, a pollinator garden, bee hives, a compost system, and a drip irrigation system fed from a large cistern that collects rainwater.
The K Street Farm is managed and maintained by DC Greens, a nonprofit organization that uses the power of partnerships to support food education, food access, and food policy. Lea Howe, DC Greens’ Farm to School Director, explained that, “the farm serves a multifold purpose. It is an educational garden space for the school, a training ground for garden educators city-wide, and a food access point for the surrounding community.”
Miya Nixon, DC Greens’ Food Corps Service member, is responsible for bringing every single student at Walker Jones out to the farm over the course of the school year for agriculture and nutrition lessons. During the summer, over 300 students ranging in age from 4 to 14 participate in these lessons at K Street Farm. On this particular day, Miya, along with another DC Greens FoodCorps Service Member, Kendra Valkema, taught a kindergarten class about the importance of pollinators through a honey test taste and activities to help identify pollinators in the garden and their role in producing food.
Locally produced foods for DC lunch trays
The tour also included a healthy and delicious lunch from the Walker Jones school cafeteria, with staff from DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) – School Food Program Manager and registered dietician Katie Nash, Director of School Food Services Ed Kwitowski, and Chief Development Officer Alex Moore – on hand to explain how its school meal program works.
As one of 8 DC public schools that DCCK contracts with to provide school meals, Walker Jones is one of the lucky few schools in the area to enjoy mostly made-from-scratch meals that use ingredients from local farms as a part of DCCK’s Healthy School Food Program. DCCK, a nonprofit “community kitchen” specializing in culinary job training, meal preparation and distribution, and food recycling, began its school meal program by serving one private school in the District back in 2008. Today, DCCK serves 6,000 of its meals each day to DC students in 8 public and 2 private schools in DC using locally sourced ingredients.
“Thirty to forty or more percent (depending on the season) of meal items are locally sourced,” says Kwitowski. Sourcing from farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina for its cooked meals, DCCK also includes items sourced locally for school salad bars, like the one at Walker Jones. Among DCCK’s biggest sources for fresh, local produce for its meals and catering operations is the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction in Dayton, Virginia, the largest wholesale auction of locally grown produce and flowers in the state. In fiscal year 2014, DCCK spent over $153,000 purchasing from local farms.
For DCCK, “you can never have too much local. We’re always in search of more local product,” says Nash.
In addition to providing fresh and healthy foods for students, DCCK’s Healthy School Food Program also employs 46 full-time employees, providing them with quality jobs that include benefits like health care, paid time off, and retirement funds. According to Moore, creating and sustaining local jobs, especially for at-risk adults with histories of chronic unemployment, is a critical objective for DCCK and its Healthy School Food Program. While seasonal summer layoffs are common in the school food industry, Moore says that 25 DCCK school food workers have access to year-round employment with benefits thanks to summertime farm to school processing activities.
Local foods helping kids learn at school
Besides local procurement, other farm to school activities at Walker Jones include taste tests, food demonstrations, theme meals, and cooking classes that teach children important lessons about where their food comes from and how to appreciate new, healthy, and cooked-from-scratch foods. Among the regular taste tests are vegetable taste tests for students that enable them to not only try new foods but to influence what foods they will see in their school cafeteria. The program, started and run by DCCK and known as “Fresh Feature Friday,” began in 2012 and features a different vegetable every month that is prepared three different ways. Kids vote on the item they like, with the winners being incorporated into school menus.
Programs such as Fresh Feature Friday have been shown to be powerful change agents in helping to develop and reinforce healthy eating habits. In a recent evaluation of four schools conducted by American University to evaluate plate waste in participating schools, researchers found that schools with the Fresh Feature Friday program saw student consumption of local produce items improve significantly.
In a 2013 study by American University, DCCK’s approach to using student feedback in recipe development increased consumption of broccoli by 90 percent, of sweet potatoes by 100 percent, and of black beans by 160 percent.
Farm to school activities, then, reinforce one another, and ultimately help the bottom line of helping kids to develop healthier eating habits and lead healthier lives by improving their awareness and appreciation for healthy food.
USDA Farm to School Grant Program promoting success
Sweeping changes to child nutrition programs were made in the 2010 Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization Act (CNR), also known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The 2010 CNR expanded children’s access to nutritious meals and snacks, improved the nutritional quality for school food, supported healthier school environments, and increased nutrition and food system education.
The 2010 CNR also funded the USDA Farm to School grant program. As a result of an NSAC-coordinated campaign in 2009-10, the program received $5 million in annual funding from the last CNR. This federal program provides competitive grants to schools, nonprofits, local agencies, tribal organizations, and farmers to help create, grow, and improve farm to school activities in schools around the country. Grants can help increase local food procurement for school meal programs and expand educational activities in agriculture and food – both in the classroom and in school gardens and farms. The grants can be used for training, supporting operations, planning, purchasing equipment, developing school gardens, developing partnerships, and implementing farm to school programs.
Among the recipients of a 2012 USDA Farm to School Grant is DCCK, which received $100,000 in funding. DCCK’s Nash says the grant “made a huge difference” in local procurement for its farm to school program. DCCK’s Moore explains that the grant allowed them to purchase equipment for produce washing and processing. The added capacity allowed DCCK to purchase more local farm products when they were seasonally available before processing, freezing and storing them for use in those months when local produce was not in season.
The Farm to School Act of 2015
With the growing popularity of farm to school activities at Walker Jones and other schools around the country, the Farm to School Grant Program is in high demand – currently only able to fund a fifth of the applications received. The bipartisan, bicameral Farm to School Act of 2015 helps to address the issue of demand and to make improvements to this popular program.
The bill was introduced on February 25, 2015 by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) in the Senate and Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) in the House. Also sponsoring the House bill are Representatives Rodney Davis (R-IL), James Langevin (D-RI), Chris Gibson (R-NY), and John Garamendi (D-CA). Among the changes proposed by the bill are an increase in annual mandatory funding for the Farm to School Grant Program from $5 million to $15 million, full inclusion of preschools, summer food service sites, and after school programs, and the prioritization of projects that link tribal schools and tribal producers. The proposed legislation also aims to improve farm to school program participation from beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. Since its launch in 2011, the USDA Farm to School Grant Program has supported projects that benefit farmers, kids and communities nationwide. In the coming months, Congress will consider the Farm to School Act as part of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which expires on September 30, 2015.
The National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the 2015 Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children, and resilient farms.