Parents, teachers and nutritionists alike have long advocated for healthier school lunches. While providing fresh vegetables for the school lunch program, school gardens are also part of a growing green school trend focused on making more sustainable schools. The Green School Initiative notes, “Many schools around the world have planted edible gardens that they use to grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. The students plant the gardens and then raise, harvest, and eat the crops, improving their nutrition, their knowledge about plant growth, and their patience.”
Growing a school garden can provide the raw materials to inspire new lunch ideas for kids, as well as tools for great hands-on learning experiences. This direct interaction even makes it more likely for kids to try new vegetables, so the healthier school lunches will be enjoyed and eaten by the students. The principal at Abernathy, an Oregon grade school with a cafeteria garden program, says, “When they [the students] have picked the Swiss chard from the garden and they've done some cooking with it in the cooking classroom, they are more willing to try it when it shows up as chard pesto in the cafeteria, because it's not something strange and green. It's something they know about.”
With First Lady Michelle Obama taking on childhood obesity as her principal cause, the time has never been better to start a school garden to put healthier food in the cafeteria. The first step to starting a school garden requires some research. Luckily, Farm to School has a comprehensive resources page with links to informative publications, involved groups and organizations, funding opportunities (such as school garden grants), newsletters, and policy and legislation background. A couple great reads include Mapping School Food: A Policy Guide, which will you help navigate the muddy school lunch program regulatory waters, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NASC) Guide to Federal Funding for Local and Regional Food Systems, which will help you secure some dollars for the garden’s start-up costs.
Armed with background information and funding ideas, meeting with school officials to create a plan of action follows. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) provides a step-by-step guide to setting up and running a school garden, and the Healthy Schools Initiative also has a detailed school garden plan available online.
It is important to be aware of potential roadblocks that may impede progress, such as school lunch program budget limitations, labor time and budget restrictions, and national nutrition standards and requirements. It is necessary to also take into consideration the current state of the cafeteria kitchen — many are no longer equipped to handle processing fresh fruits and vegetables, as the current school lunch program is dependant upon reheating frozen, pre-processed foods. School garden grants are a good way to cover any necessary remodeling and start-up costs.
Also, advocating for policy and legislation regarding healthier school lunches is important to spread healthy lunches beyond individual schools and communities to the national level — the Green Schools Initiative suggest some specific advocacy ideas. Federal mandates limiting the sale of junk foods and encouraging the use of fresh, local produce would go a long way in advancing healthier school lunches.
Check out the links below for inspirational stories of how school gardens were successfully implanted as part of the classroom curriculum and cafeteria’s regular lunch menu.
We’d love to hear about your personal experience starting, joining or working in a school garden in the comments section below.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.
Photos from Flickr/upturnedface and Flickr/roswellgirl
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