Thanks to a creative array of local partnerships with farmers, the Plumas Unified School District has harvested a bounty of success with its dedication to teaching students the importance of good nutrition and knowing where their food comes from — two goals that are highlighted in October’s National Farm to School Month program.
“The district is committed to having gardens on campuses because we want kids to see their school gardens as a learning experience,” said Paul Mrowczynski, a U.C. Master Gardener and retired Plumas County Office of Education staffer.
Mrowczynski coordinates the PUSD’s elementary school garden sites and said the district is in the second year of its five-year plan to build its thriving K-12 school garden education project.
An avid gardener, he authored the PUSD Farm to School plan and writes grants to benefit the program that focuses on teaching students where food comes from, how to make healthy food choices, the value of team work, and applying math, reading and writing skills to hands-on growing experiences at all four of PUSD’s elementary schools, plus the junior and senior high schools in Portola, Quincy and Greenville.
The elementary site gardens have been developed to support short-growing-season vegetables like summer squash, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, potatoes, garlic, onions, beans, peas, cucumbers, corn, winter squash and some early tomatoes, according to the Farm to School plan.
All lessons are aligned to Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards.
According to the Center for Rural Affairs, 2017 marks the seventh year that Congress has designated October as National Farm to School Month, a time to recognize the importance of improving child nutrition and supporting local economies. The program is designed to help provide access to more fruits and vegetables. It’s also an avenue for rural schools to keep spending within their communities with purchases made from local farms.
Toward those ends, Mrowczynski is working to bring together Plumas County farmers and, eventually, area ranchers, to increase the amount of locally grown produce, meat and other foods available for the PUSD school nutrition program.
“As of June 2016, two percent of the school district’s food services budget was spent on locally grown foods,” Mrowczynski said. “Our goal over five years is to get to 25 percent spent on local produce and other foods.”
For a variety of salad vegetables, strawberries and other produce, the district partners with small-scale growers who are part of plumasgrown.com such as Five Foot Farm, Sundberg Growers, the Follow Your Heart Farm, Sierra Valley Farm and others. Beef from the Thompson Valley Ranch has also been purchased. Mrowczynski would like to see the options expanded to include things like spaghetti squash, winter squash and pumpkins, to name a few.
The effort is not without some challenges.
“It’s been a rough year for our local farms —a frost hit one of our partners pretty hard,” Mrowczynski explained. “Many area farms are really, really small operations — like one to three acres. At this point, there isn’t the capacity to grow enough produce year-round or as much as PUSD can use year-round.”
But he’s working on that.
“We’re trying to get more farmers interested in our program, working with them to see what kinds of crops they might be able to commit to growing for the schools,” he said, adding that he’s in contact with ranchers in the region, as well, hoping to work out future arrangements for supplies of locally raised beef and other products.
The benefits to students go beyond delicious school lunches, though.
Mrowczynski and PUSD’s team of school garden educators hope that learning the science of how food is grown, the value of good nutrition and the importance of locally sourced foods are lessons that will stay with kids for a long time.
The district’s plan for the next few years calls for continued efforts to provide standards-based instruction through garden activities. Additionally, integrating K-12 nutrition and wellness standards is a priority.
Along the way, fun is a necessary part of the district’s approach to hands-on garden education.
“We have had our students meet their local farmers, use special ‘farm bucks’ to buy things at the farmers’ markets and tell their parents about what they’re learning,” Mrowczynski said, explaining that one key to the district’s successful effort has been to invite local farmers, ranchers, teachers and community members to participate in the program.
The five-year plan acknowledges the support PUSD has received in terms of contributions from Plumas County Office of Education, USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Plumas County Public Health Department, Mountain Passages and Sierra Farmstead.
Additionally, there have been volunteer parents, community members, local farmers and ranchers who have provided materials and labor in establishing school gardens.
Groups like Plumas Sierra Master Gardeners, Plumas Sierra 4H, Plumas Sierra Community Food Council, 20,000 Lives, Quincy Natural Foods and Feather River Cooperative have provided in-kind support that helped realize a garden in each elementary school by the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.
Mrowczynski explained that the elementary sites are set up as demonstration gardens where students can grow and harvest foods for their class and to take home, but are not expected to grow enough to sell their crops. The junior and senior high school gardens, however, will be anticipated to grow sufficient quantities to be run like a business with products to sell.
He cited the Greenville High School garden, overseen by math teacher Dan Brown, as a true production garden.
“Greenville has the most advanced school garden in the district,” Mrowczynski said. “We estimate the Greenville High garden produced 2,000 lbs. of produce last year. They are very productive and Dan is really dedicated. He’s done this with grants and basically on his own.”
Mrowczynski has his work cut out for him for the next few years.
He’ll be writing more grants and conducting farm-to-school meetings to update community members about the progress of school gardens in each community, seeking suggestions and support to improve students’ garden experiences.
Also on the list is reviewing the availability and capacity of local and regional farmers and ranches to supply grains, produce, milk, eggs and meat for PUSD cafeteria menus.
Down the road, students will be involved in taste tests and recipe contests to potentially modify school menus. The district will also evaluate participation rates, waste practices and student preferences.
“Our aim is to grow the program,” Mrowczynski said.
It’s an ambitious goal and the project’s success so far is tangible proof that many hands make light work.