Ready, Set, Grow | Local Farm-To-School Programs

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By Emma Crawford Kent

Ever thought about how schools use their green spaces?

From courtyard gardens to full-on pumpkin patches, a growing trend in the Northeast Mississippi area is to use those oft-overlooked spaces to grow vegetables.

The farm-to-table movement brought locally-sourced food and nutrition into focus in recent years, and educators are following suit, bringing gardening and nutrition lessons aimed at creating healthy kids to local schools.

While the farm-to-school idea may not be completely new to the Northeast corner of our state, it is growing.

Two school districts leading that growth are the Tupelo Public School District and the Pontotoc City School District.

Elementary schools in the Tupelo Public School District have built gardens on their campuses and added gardening time into the students’ busy school days over the last several years.

In 2015, Pontotoc Middle School added gardens to its courtyard and a greenhouse that would eventually turn into a small farmer’s market at the school.

Garden and agriculture programs also exist in the Nettleton and Baldwyn school districts.

“Having the foundation of knowing that your food doesn’t just come shrink-wrapped from Wal Mart – I think that is priceless,” said Kelly Ginn, former agriculture teacher at Pontotoc Middle. “ I think it’s amazing that communities and schools are willing to let their children play with that and explore that, because it’s really a lot of fun.”

Tupelo’s farm-to-school program, “Growing Healthy Waves,” is a district-wide initiative created through a partnership with FoodCorps.

In the Tupelo school district, students tend to the plants and teachers deliver garden-related lessons that teach academic and life skills.

The gardens provide the perfect opportunity for elementary-aged students to get their hands dirty while learning about science, nutrition and math.

A large garden at Pontotoc Middle School includes raised beds and container gardens as well as a greenhouse.

An $80,000 grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield Mississippi originally paid for the construction of the Pontotoc greenhouse, raised beds, seeds and gardening tools, among other supplies.

Taking a cue from Pontotoc, a greenhouse was built this summer on Lawndale Elementary’s campus in Tupelo.

Pontotoc students use the greenhouse and surrounding beds to grow and sell tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and pumpkins, depending on the season.

The students have also now begun starting their own plants from seed and cuttings, including houseplants.

Not only does gardening connect students to the food, Ginn said, it connects them to the community as they sell their produce.

“It’s a great way to have fresh-grown stuff right there in town that people may not have in their homes,” Ginn said.

These programs in Tupelo and Pontotoc have mostly been made possible through grant money, but schools are now finding new ways to make the programs sustainable.

At Pontotoc Middle, selling produce is supplemented by what Ginn calls the “Greenhouse Hotel.” During the winter, community members and school teachers and staff can pay to house their outdoor plants in the school’s greenhouse from late November until March.

It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash – $300 this past year – to put back into the program, Ginn said.

With $800-$900 from selling produce and plants, the middle-school enterprise brought in more than $1,000 during the 2016-17 school year.

According to TPSD Growing Healthy Waves volunteer Donna Loden, the plan is to have Lawndale students eventually sell their own plants from their greenhouse, too.

Loden also hopes to see the greenhouse used for hands-on science, technology, engineering and math lessons this year, and she wants to allow all of the district’s students – not just those at Lawndale – to be a part of the action.

In the meantime, though, Loden’s been seeking Ginn’s advice on how to make Lawndale’s greenhouse self-sustaining and well-equipped for the first group of students who will use it this fall.

The two districts may even collaborate further in the future.

“I hope that we can leverage both of our school districts’ knowledge of STEM and make it a cross-county coalition,” Loden said. “I love the idea of getting those teachers working together.”

 

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