Fresh produce doesn’t travel far to get to school cafeterias in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. In 2016, Spartanburg School District Six embarked on a big project to connect students with local food by starting its own farm.
The Spartanburg County Foundation and Upstate Forever came together to protect a 49-acre tract of land in the southern part of Spartanburg County. Beyond farmland preservation, the school had its own goals for part of the property: to grow fresh produce and incorporate it into school lunches.
“We really want to get back to where we were 40 or 50 years ago with scratch-made cooking, canning in the summer, and providing the best, healthiest food that we can for our students,” says Dylan Nitzkorski, the District 6 farm-to-school coordinator.
He says the project was prompted by new federal student nutrition guidelines, and an interest in improving the quality of school lunches. Typically, school lunches are made off-site from processed ingredients, so it took some training for the cafeteria staff to learn to cook meals with an abundance of fresh produce.
“Before I even came to the district they had done two summers where the entire food service staff went through culinary classes to learn how to go back to the basics of fresh cut everything,” he says.
One of the challenges has been transporting the produce from the fields to the cafeteria. The school doesn’t have refrigerated trucks or labor to do it itself, so it became a wholesale farm that sells to a local distributor that delivers the farm’s fresh produce to its schools.
The farm project is still in its “alpha year,” as Nitzkorski describes it, but they are beginning to see results on the farm and in the cafeteria. “Our first harvest was broccoli in June, and the most rewarding [part] was getting to serve that in our summer nutrition sites and just really see the excitement of our cafeteria managers being able to serve farm-fresh food for our students and seeing how our students were eating it. One of our cafeteria managers, she would just always say that was the best broccoli ever that we had. And so getting to see the buy-in from our cafeteria managers that would then transcend down to our students, that just melts your heart,” he says.
For older students, agricultural literacy is incorporated into school’s college and career readiness programs. “In agriculture, you have to have an extremely high vocabulary in order to go into that field. Typically your Lexile level, which is basically your vocabulary level in educational speak, has to be just below what you would need for being a lawyer or in law enforcement because there’s a lot of science terms that go with that, so we have some really good educational components as well,” he says.
Hands-on practice growing produce is part of the learning experience for students. “They do almost everything in the greenhouse, guided by Elizabeth Morton who is our agriculture education teacher. She’s got so many great stories about students just never knowing truly where food comes from, or never planted anything, or even if they had in elementary school, they didn’t realize the connection between everything, so it’s really exciting for her to get to see the ‘ah-ha’ moments students are having in the greenhouse,” he says.
They’re still working out the kinks, like what to do in hot weather when tender greens don’t grow well, but they expect to consistently provide cafeterias with lettuce for their salad bars this year. In the meantime, broccoli, bell peppers, and cabbage have come out of the fields and onto cafeteria trays this fall.
“When you can have local, delicious food right on your table, and in your cafeteria, and at home, that’s one of the most powerful things you can do for your students and for yourself,” he says.
Find resources for starting or expanding farm to school programs in your community at www.growing-minds.org
Aired: October 9, 2017