Some second, third and fourth graders at Elm Grove Elementary School in Independence get really excited when their parents get to eat lunch with them.
It’s not only because they have their parents with them. Some of the vegetables served in the cafeteria were grown in garden beds maintained by the students outside the school.
“They will tell their parents, ‘I am in the Garden Club. We grew this!’” Elm Grove teacher Mandy Vassalle said.
That’s just one part of the Farm to Fort program, in which the Fort Osage School District collects produce and fruit from local farmers to serve for lunch at each school, including some student-maintained vegetable gardens at Elm Grove, Buckner Elementary and at the Career and Technology Center.
Fort Osage is the first school district in the Eastern Jackson County area to have a program like this and only the fourth in the Kansas City area. It’s a part of a national program called Farm to School.
The goals, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, are:
• Students consuming more fruits and vegetables.
• Students learning about agriculture and healthy eating.
• School food-service operations increasing both the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables served and increasing their revenues from adult and student participation in school meal programs.
• Farmers diversifying their markets, securing contracts for their products and establishing grower collaboratives and cooperatives.
In the summer of 2017, a group of Fort Osage food service staff members went on a Farm to School bus tour. They visited some producers in Warrensburg.
“It piqued our interest to bring local produce to our school,” Fort Osage Food Service Director Stacie Waller said. “We have a committee of 13 people with different backgrounds – some in education and some in the community. We’re working with local producers to bring fresh fruit and vegetables to our schools.”
“We are also partnering with the MU Extension Office that is part of the Farm to Missouri Program. Someone from their office is on our committee, as well. We’re starting really slow, but it’s taking off. It’s more economical to buy local. It’s just the right thing to do.”
Some locally grown fruits and vegetables can be seen at some school cafeterias such as watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers and red and green papers, among other foods. A significant portion of the fruit and vegetables served comes from Moyer Farms in Richmond.
“We’ve had meetings with two other local farming groups, as well,” Waller said. “And we had eight to 10 farming groups that are starting to get involved with the process.”
Because some of the food is grown at the schools, Waller said that has encouraged some of the elementary students to eat healthier.
“They were very interested in trying the local produce that they normally wouldn’t try at home,” Waller said. “The kids take a huge amount of pride in what they did (at Elm Grove). It’s fun and something different.”
Elm Grove teacher Sara Green agreed. She oversees the students who work on the garden beds. She said the garden beds have been at the school for a few years and she is happy that the vegetables the students are helping produce are being used in the school’s cafeteria, such as broccoli, green beans, sweet potatoes and radishes. The students plant the seeds, water the plants and harvest the vegetables. They also learn what vegetables can and cannot grow during certain seasons.
“We weren’t able to do anything with the garden before besides sharing it with each other,” Green said. “The kids get so excited because they get to provide food for their friends.
“My favorite part is kids learning where food comes from and how (the process of growing vegetables) works. When it comes from someone they know, the kids are more likely to try it.”
In the future, Waller said she hopes the district can expand some of the gardens, have students take field trips to nearby farms and to have an addition greenhouse to the one that’s at the Career and Technology Center.
“We’re just starting slow with education and letting the parents know this is now available,” Waller said. “We’re getting the message out a little bit at a time.”