ST. ALBANS TOWN – Students from George Murphy’s and Cathy Branon’s sixth grade classes crowded around a large bucket of soil near the classroom’s “grow labs,” wondering what vegetables they wanted to try from their school’s coming gardens.

They liked cucumbers, they decided. Tomatoes too.

Candy corn? “I wish,” one student sighed.

To their teachers’ surprise, some students said they were excited for even the weeding their new garden would require. 

“There’s a quote for you,” Branon told the Messenger with a smile.

The students spoke as they transplanted spinach seedlings from their paper cups to larger pots, where those plants could grow before eventually landing in their own plot in a St. Albans Town Educational Center (SATEC) garden.

Across SATEC, students may find themselves similarly exercising green thumbs as part of a larger initiative to bring farms and gardens into the school. 

At SATEC, Farm-to-School projects extend from the cafeteria making meals from an Agency of Agriculture-featured local ingredient to the new orchard stretched out at the edge of SATEC’s playground to a communal “share fridge” where students can leave food they didn’t eat for someone else.

According to Lisa Curry, a second grade teacher and one of the organizers of SATEC’s Farm-to-School initiative, the program began gradually when conversations between teachers at SATEC and Northwest Technical Center (NWTC) teacher Jacob Holzberg-Pill led to an orchard in SATEC’s backyard.

“That kind of rolled into Farm-to-School,” Curry said.

Last year, a study conducted by RiseVT and the Vermont Dept. of Health concluded almost half of the students attending public schools in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties were either overweight or obese.

In the Maple Run Unified School District, almost a quarter of the district’s students qualified as obese.

Results of that study informed SATEC’s push toward a Farm-to-School program, which provides an avenue for teachers to introduce students to healthier food habits and teach them about what brings that food to their plates.

“It helps them build lifelong healthy habits,” said Lisa Thompson, another second grade teacher involved with SATEC’s Farm-to-School program. “It helps them realize that food doesn’t just start in the grocery store.”

A RiseVT grant supports some of the Farm-to-School initiative at SATEC, helping fund the new orchard and gardening supplies for the school.

An even larger grant was provided by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which awarded a $15,000 grant to the school for Farm-to-School programming over the next three years.

Logan Mitchell, Joey Nachaczewski and Hayden Latimer from NWTC’s Outdoor Technology Program spread mulch in SATEC’s orchard Friday morning. (Courtesy of Jacob Holzberg-Pill, NWTC)

Farm-to-School hasn’t been universally adopted in SATEC. The school is “starting small,” according to Curry and Thompson, with only some teachers adopting the “grow labs” built for SATEC by NWTC.

“Gardening is still a learning curve for us,” Curry said. “Especially with so many kids and so many plants [and] organizing it all on a large scale.”

Those grow labs, tiered shelving lined with lights to help support an assortment of different vegetable seedlings, could be flush with everything from spinach and lettuce to younger corn plants that, according to Thompson, students are excited to pop come harvest time.

In the classrooms with grow labs, students help maintain their plants from seed to seedling, watering and transferring their plants to larger pots until those plants are ready for an outdoor garden.

“I’m excited to see our babies grow up,” one of Branon’s students remarked.

Meanwhile, during lunch times, middle school students, including those in Branon’s classroom, might find themselves serving a dish based off of the Agency of Agriculture’s featured ingredient for the month, sharing foods with students that might not have tried those foods otherwise.

“It’s just a way for students to try something they wouldn’t normally try,” said Tammy Deso, an administrative assistant at SATEC.

SATEC is only the latest school in the Maple Run school district to adopt a Farm-to-School program. Both Fairfield Center School and St. Albans City School have programs, and, according to Curry and Thompson, they helped advise SATEC in its early stages.

“We learned that [St. Albans] City School and Fairfield had Farm-to-School, and we wanted to learn more about that,” said Thompson.

“I think it helped that our sister schools already had Farm-to-School,” Curry said.

NWTC is also involved with SATEC’s Farm-to-School program, with students building the school’s grow labs and also helping with planting SATEC’s orchard.

SATEC second graders Caleb Mungo, Makayla Brosseau and Nolan Laroche plant seeds for their classroom’s “grow lab.” (Courtesy of Lisa Thompson, SATEC)

Aside from the grow lab, classrooms could see other connections form with the program. 

Deso suggested that math skills could be exercised as students portion out composting for their classroom’s garden beds, while Thompson thought questions around farms and foods could be taught as history, social studies and economics.

Arguably more important was the teachers’ suggestion that Farm-to-School could overhaul a cultural perception toward food, introducing students to stewardship and changing the way they think about those foods. It’s something they’ve heard students bring home to their parents, the teachers said.

“It’s changing the culture,” Curry said. “It’s exposure.”

“It goes much farther than the student in the classroom,” Thompson said.

The future, they suggested, might see the school try to establish a “common thread” for Farm-to-School as well as the inclusion of a cooking angle to help teach students to cook some of the food they’ve grown.

A formal action plan is due to the Agency of Agriculture sometime in December.

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