This month, busloads of school children will visit area farms to learn first hand where their food comes from while hundreds more will take home fresh, locally grown produce from school garden carts.
Kids are eating healthier thanks to a passionate group of volunteers, parents and members of a group called Live Healthy Nevada County, just awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School grant totaling $300,000.
With the new funding, the group can grow its farm-to-school program for the next three years by reaching a larger population of the county’s youth.
“It’s getting a lot more structure and a lot more meat behind it,” said Aimee Retzler, president of Live Healthy Nevada County.
What began as a school garden at Hennessy School in the spring of 2008 has grown to include 11 schools partnering with area farms this year.
“We started with one school, and now we’re at 11. We’re definitely out of pilot mode now,” Retzler said.
With the new funding, the program will support paid staff and expand to a county-wide initiative with the goal of reversing childhood obesity and food security trends by providing access to fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables, introducing nutrition and agriculture curriculum and creating relationships between families and farmers.
By the end of the three-year grant period, 14 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, 65 percent of the county’s elementary and middle school students, will be enrolled in a farm-to-school program.
According to the grant proposal, 68 percent of Americans are considered overweight or obese with children one of the most rapidly growing overweight populations.
In Nevada County, food insecurity — the term used to describe families who don’t know where their next meal is coming from — is at 30 percent. Only one percent of the county grows the food it eats, according to Live Healthy Nevada County.
Besides growing the program, the grant money will reimburse hardworking farmers who stock garden carts, offer up their farms for field trips and come to classrooms to give talks.
“They are getting a decent chunk of money, too. Now they’re going to get a little more than a handshake,” Retzler said.
Farm to School Director Malaika Bishop and Amanda Thibodeau, farm educator and Farm to School committee chair, helped train parent farm liaisons from each school. Farm liaisons lead field trips designed to meet standard curriculum requirements for mostly grades three and six. They also help connect farms, schools and community members and bring awareness to the abundance of fresh, local food available in the county.
“It’s totally going as planned. It’s amazing … We’ve found a liaison in every school, and in some schools, there’s more than one,” Bishop said.
Under the grant, the goal of the program is to reduce childhood obesity and improve food security through nutrition education based on “specialty crops” — those typically growing at small organic farms like those found in Nevada County.
One way to teach children about healthy food is to expose them to it. Garden carts have become hugely popular at area schools.
“The kids are swarming around the garden carts … Every little scrap of vegetables is gone each week,” Bishop said of the carts that take donations but don’t require them.
Because of the carts, children are trying foods they typically might not have access to — things like ground cherries, raspberries, specialty peppers, figs, heirloom tomatoes and pumpkins from the school garden.
In June, Bishop and Thibodeau journeyed to Berkeley to attend two and a half days of training at the Edible Schoolyard Academy first started by Alice Waters.
For years, Bishop has led farm field trips at the Quaker-based Woolman School.
Thibodeau is known for her education-based farm, the Food Love Project, part of the Living Lands Agrarian Network.
In time, organizers hope to extend the reach of the program by training folks from other counties who want to follow suit.
The new funding is expected to help pave the way for a reformed school meal program already in the research stages now. After last fall’s highly attended food summit, momentum has grown for a return to “scratch cooking.”
All county school superintendents have endorsed the idea of looking into opportunities that will bring back “scratch cooking” to area schools, and an assessment of school meal programs last spring showed it’s possible with an investment of equipment and space.
“It’s moving, but it’s always baby steps,” Retzler said.
With a paid staff, Live Healthy can help meal planners working from the Central Kitchen to network with local supply chains such as BriarPatch Co-op for ingredients.
State and federal nutritional funding through a number of local organizations and county offices is plentiful, with as much as $1 million available, according to Retzler. All that is needed is someone to connect the dots.
“This is a small community. We can collaborate and make connections,” Retzler said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at (530) 401-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.