Farm to School: Caring for soil, food, students, & planet!
The Farm to School Movement has been around in the U.S. since the mid-90’s when the National Farm to School Network began its work supporting local food systems. Since then, it has grown to include programs in 46 states, plus a few territories, engaging roughly 26.3M students (National Farm to School Network¹, 2021).
Proud to be a part of the movement, Slow Money San Luis Obispo started connecting local San Luis Obispo County, CA farmers to school districts in 2017, and launched Farm to School Central Coast (FTSCC) in early 2021. This work is not only rewarding and fun, it also benefits our local farmers, local students, local economy, and the environment.
In the 2020/2021 school year FTSCC connected 12 small local farmers to 3 local school districts, which translated to 63,000 pounds of local fruits and vegetables served to school children K-12, generating $75K in sales for those farmers.
Now, when we say “local” we mean school districts and farms located within San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara Counties. That’s cutting down on food miles by quite a bit and also cuts out the middle fluff of the food chain so that farmers keep all of their profit, and kids get the freshest food possible - sometimes harvested the same day as delivery!
Those who are on the up-and-up of local food and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions might stop me right there and say ‘Well, the majority of GHG doesn’t actually come from transportation of food, but from production of food, so your praise of local food’s benefit to the environment is premature.” And I’d say “I agree!”, and so do various environmental scholars (Weber, C. L., and Matthews, H. S., 2008). However, food miles are not the only way that FTSCC is helping our environment.
Studies have found that “Small farms also more readily adopt environmentally friendly practices. They often rebuild crop and insect diversity, use less pesticides, enrich the soil with cover crops, create border areas for wildlife, and produce tastier food (since industrial food is bred to withstand long-distance shipping and mechanical harvesting)” (Cho, 2012). That all sounds wonderfully planet friendly, right?!
Some might now ask me “Yeah, but how do you know that your FTSCC farmers are practicing those things?”
Well, that’s the beauty (among many other things) of connecting to local farmers. They are in my county, so I can go visit them! When I visit, I learn about their practices and how they are trying to help the Earth.
For example, Four Elements Organic Farm. This small farm is owned by Caroline Duell and her husband, Ryan Rich. Farming is not their only gig though. Caroline is the founder and CEO of All Good, a 1% for the Planet business. She has been a gardener, herbalist, and healer for many years and turned that into a business, after she and Ryan bought the farm. On their land, they grow some of the botanicals that are found in their skin care products, as well as Satsuma mandarins (pictured). These fruits have been a welcome addition to our Farm to School Central Coast program, and kids in 3 of our county’s school districts (roughly 10,000 students) enjoyed the organic sweetness this Winter!
What’s even sweeter, through practices like cover cropping, ally cropping, mulching, etc., Four Elements Farm has increased their soil microbial biomass by 52% from 2019 to 2020 (All Good, 2020)! We are so thrilled to have this connection to farmers that care deeply for the land and the soil, as well as feeding the freshest produce to our county’s students.
But the goodness doesn’t stop there! We have plenty of other farmers that supply our school districts while also working with Mother Nature to nurture the soil and the land.
One such farmer is Larry Kandarian of Kandarian Organic Farms. He grows 1,000 different species on his farm, including the red lentils and chia seeds that are sold to the school district that’s just 7 miles from the farm. Larry is a) increasing the biodiversity of species on his farm, b) planting hedgerows to attract pollinators c) practicing no-till farming….. and on and on.
Left: Chia growing at Kandarian Organic Farms. Right: Harvested chia blended into an energy bite served to local SLO County students.
Or how about City Farm SLO, just 2 miles from the school district that buys their row crops. Their urban farm is caring for the Earth and soil health by a) practicing no-till farming b) adding on-site produced vermicompost to their soil, c) rotationally grazing their sheep, etc.
Rock Front Ranch grows organic jujubes (also in the energy bite pictured above) and husbands honey bees, protecting the mighty pollinator while producing raw honey. Windrose Farm and Better Organics Farm also keep bees on their farms to help with pollination.
We at FTSCC are honored to connect all of our small farms, including these, to our San Luis Obispo County school districts. Combined, they are tending to roughly 650 acres of farm and wild land in our county, and we know that means 650 acres (at least) are benefiting from their planet forward stewardship.
So that’s the farm perspective of this program, how about some school perspective?
Scholars and advocates have been tracking the effects that farm to school programs have on student health over the years, and have found some pretty encouraging trends. Not only do students get increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables, they are more likely to eat them when farm to school programs integrate classroom learning, school gardens, and the cafeteria (National Farm to School Network², 2021). Furthermore, kids who are trying more fruits and vegetables at school are more likely to change their eating habits at home and eat fewer processed foods - another planet win since consuming “less processed foods can further reduce one’s greenhouse gas emissions” (Cho, 2012). That’s great news for the 18,000 students in the districts that participated in FTSCC during the 2020/2021 school year!
Peaches, summer squash + tomatoes, and green skin avocados delivered to schools from Windrose Farm, City Farm SLO, and Better Organics Farm respectively.
Throughout my short tenure in farm to school work, I have found that the concept is pretty easy for folks to get behind. Why wouldn’t we feed farm fresh produce to our students which supports their health and learning, and supports our local agricultural sector? Add to those benefits all the positive climate implications and I’d say, farm to school is definitely a no-brainer when it comes to soil, food, people, and planet!
All Good. (2020). Impact Report 2020. https://allgoodproducts.com/impact-report/
Cho, R. (2012). How Green is Local Food? Columbia Climate School. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2012/09/04/how-green-is-local-food/
National Farm to School Network¹. (2021). About National Farm to School Network. https://www.farmtoschool.org/about-nfsn
National Farm to School Network². (2021). The Benefits of Farm to School. University of Wisconsin. https://cias.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/194/2021/02/farm2-benefits-of-farm-to-school.pdf
Weber, C. L., and Matthews, H. S. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. American Chemical Society Publications. https://doi.org/10.1021/es702969f