By Will Sleddens, Jenna Thompson, Luke Weidner and Josie Dostal
At Pius X High School, dozens of students crowded around tables of freshly picked peppers.
Today was a special “tasting day” for community-grown produce. Local farmer Gary Fehr handed out cups of seeds and encouraged students to guess what each will grow into. The fresh veggies he brought would soon be chopped, baked, stuffed and served in the cafeteria.
The school felt more like a farmers market on this fall day, but thanks to Nebraska’s Farm to School Institute, Pius X students are able to enjoy farm-fresh produce with their meals regularly.
Last year, staff from eight schools across Nebraska, including Pius X, attended the Farm to School Institute. There, they had the opportunity to learn how to incorporate agricultural education into their curriculum and local food products into their students’ diets. From greenhouse development to field trips and community sourced food, these institutions aimed to incorporate Farm to School into their curriculums.
According to a statewide garden needs assessment by the Nebraska Department of Education in 2018, about 61% of schools in Nebraska have gardens. The most common reasons for those that didn’t were lack of interest, lack of financial resources and lack of ability to care for the garden during the summer months. However, about 61% of those schools also indicated some interest in incorporating a garden into their school’s curriculum.
Additionally, the assessment revealed that 40 percent of Nebraska students surveyed had never had access to a garden.
The Farm to School Institute was created in 2021 by the Nebraska Farm to School program as a way to bring agriculture into a traditional classroom setting. The state Department of Education, which runs program, received $99,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to organize the Institute.
Each school that attended the week-long virtual seminar received a $3,000 grant, designated for establishing agricultural learning opportunities during the school year.
The eight schools and school districts were Banner County School, Burwell Public Schools, Gering High School, Humboldt Table Rock Steinauer Public Schools, Overton Public School, Pius X High School, Southern Public Schools and Umo ‘ho’ Nation Public School.
According to Nebraska Farm to School Coordinator Sarah Smith, each of the schools went through an application process. The Farm to School Institute assessed the schools’ agricultural needs and previous experience to find the best fit for the inaugural institute.
“They might have high needs for incorporating new activities and hands-on education, running nutrition and agriculture in their schools or their districts,” she said. “And, they might have some level of experience as well, so that they’re poised like a rocket to take off and go.”
Each team was composed of a school administrator, a school food service director, a third staff member from the school and a team partner from Nebraska Extension.
“We want to see agricultural development in our state and we want to see that students are growing awareness and respect for what it takes to be eaters – like having a connection to that food,” Smith said. “Because when there’s a connection, there’s an expansion of willingness to try new and healthy things.”
Smith said the program followed a model from a Farm to School project in Vermont which took a “3 C’s” approach: classroom, cafeteria and community.
Smith said each team came up with a value statement to determine their goals moving forward.
During this inaugural year, the eight schools successfully found ways to implement agricultural education into their classrooms.
At Southern Public Schools, staff said used grant money to convert a storage room into an indoor grow room, said Brady Meyer, National FFA Organization adviser and agriculture teacher. The school’s initial goal for the room was to supply its salad bar with student-grown lettuce for at least one month – a goal that Meyer said they surpassed.
Although the school already had a greenhouse, Meyer wanted an indoor grow room with controlled temperatures to produce food year-round. The grow room sprouts vegetables such as peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. The school also began teaching a class that allowed students to learn about the growing process and how food is produced.
Meyer said the new grow room was successful despite only having a 2-year-old FFA program. According to Meyer, students are very proud of the produce they helped grow in the class. He also said that students and staff prefer the produce grown in-house over shipped-in produce.
“Why does it taste better? Well, it’s fresh,” Meyer said. “It’s straight from the grow tower, down to the kitchen, washed quickly, put into the salad bar — boom, you’re eating it within a couple of hours that we’re harvesting it.”
Gering Public Schools is using its funding to integrate hydroponic grow towers in the classroom, said Jennifer Sibal, director of community engagement.
“They’re vertical growing towers where we harvest a variety of different things,” she said. “We’ve done lettuce, we’ve done swiss chard, we’ve done strawberries, and the students grow those and then harvest them, and we utilize them in our school cafeteria right now.”
Sibal said the school has implemented its Farm to School program since the beginning of the 2021 school year. Their efforts helped the school establish its new program by getting students excited about agriculture.
Sibal said agriculture is essential to the community and students’ education.
“We’re an important piece of developing the next generation of the workforce,” she said. “I think it’s important for students to understand what those options are within ag and what a key piece that our community and ag industry play in the development of our own communities.”
The grant prohibited schools from spending funds on cafeteria food. However, some schools used their funding to purchase equipment that would help them better process and prepare fresh, locally produced foods.
At Banner County Schools, staff is planning to use some of its funding to purchase blenders for the school cafeteria, said Justin Carter, a Center for Rural Affairs project associate who is helping with the program as the schools’ Nebraska Extension partner. Carter said the school is planning to use some of its funding to purchase blenders for the school cafeteria. These blenders will be used to make smoothies, encouraging students to incorporate more fresh produce into their diet.
Banner County will source some of the fruits and vegetables used in the smoothies from local farmers. However, Carter said he would like to see some of the school’s own produce incorporated as well. The school used part of its funding to set up an aquaponics program, which could be used to grow greens for smoothies.
Pius X High School also used the money for kitchen equipment to help process local produce, said Carmen Goedon, director of nutrition services. Carmen said the school buys fresh produce like pumpkins and tomatoes during the summer and fall seasons, but can’t use all of their produce right away.
“We actually bought a commercial immersion blender to process it in mass quantities,” she said. “That way we can get them bagged up and put them back into the freezer so we can use it throughout the wintertime. So, we get local products all year.”
Fehr of Green School Farms has been selling his produce to Pius X High School for several years. Last fall, the school had a weeklong event featuring local products in the cafeteria. Fehr set up a booth in the cafeteria where students could taste produce and play games while learning about the farm. Later this year, students in the school’s Farm to School Club will take a field trip to the farm.
For Overton Public Schools, the Farm to School Institute was a chance for the district to engage with the community. According to Julie Loudon, agricultural education teacher and FFA adviser, the community showed up in force.
Loudon and other Farm to School team members planned to use grant money for a festival-style barbecue held on the first Friday of the school year for anyone in the area to come grab a free, homemade meal. The event was designed to bring the entire community together through games, food, school involvement and showcasing what farmers in the area have to offer.
However, Loudon said they encountered an unexpected surprise – everything for the festival ended up being donated by community members.
“We did not spend our grant money because — everything we thought we were going to buy — somebody’s like, ‘Oh I’ll donate that to you,’” Loudon said. “And that’s the beautiful thing about a small town.”
In the end, about 100 out of Overton’s 600 residents attended the festival, which Loudon considered a great success. For Overton Public Schools, Loudon says the barbecue was a way to communicate the school’s agricultural efforts to the town.
“That was our community goal,” she added. “That was kind of our attempt at trying to tell the community what’s going on.”
A big driving force for the Nebraska Farm to School Institute is the involvement and support from schools’ surrounding communities. Smith said that while grants are provided, some of these schools receive additional donations from the community toward the program. Also, with many participating schools located in rural areas, agricultural resources are often sourced from local producers.
Darrin Max, superintendent of Burwell Public Schools, said these growers help provide nutritional foods for lunch options and enhanced learning on the sources of these locally grown crops.
Along with this, a beef-to-school program began about five years ago. Through this program, beef is donated by local farmers to the school, which then sends it to be processed at a USDA-approved facility. While the locally sourced beef is certainly a generous donation for Burwell’s Farm to School efforts, processing the beef takes time and can be seen as a drawback.
“Nowadays, everybody’s backed up, and you have to really schedule those killings about a year in advance. So it’s kind of hard to get in,” Max said.
Regardless, the local community’s support plays a big part in Burwell’s current Farm to School program, as they don’t plan to start planting their own foods until this summer.
Funding for this year’s Farm to School Institute will end on June 30. Each school has until then to submit reimbursement requests for any grant money that they spent this year. After the program has ended, Smith and other Farm to School volunteers will finalize an overall evaluation on the impact of the program, which will be sent to each school.
Smith said they are working to continue the program, guided by the evaluations that come at the end of this school year. She said she hopes to see more schools across the state incorporate Farm to School activities, even if they are not part of the official Farm to School institute.
“We just have to be really creative and intentional about moving forward and what we can do and how we’ll do it,” Smith said. “But we are committed to doing another institute.”
Smith hopes to see the program grow and evolve, but the next Farm to School Institute will likely not happen until the 2023-2024 school year. This year, Nebraska Farm to School representatives will attend the Northeast Farm to School Institute to learn about their program. Then, they’ll need to find funding for their second Institute. In this second round of the program, their vision includes leveraging FFA for youth training and further greenhouse development for cafeteria foods.
Smith said another desired adjustment would be adaptations based on Nebraska’s different urban, rural and tribal communities, pushing for equity and accessibility between the different schools in the state.
“I want to be using this knowledge and expertise that exists within Nebraskans in a way that’s regionally helpful for districts,” Smith said. “I want to say that we’re providing a network of support for the different regions that have different needs and can be learning from each other so that they’re not isolated.”
While the future of the Farm to School in Nebraska isn’t entirely clear, those involved are working to continue development on the program they see as incredibly beneficial.
“I just have hopes that we’ll be able to have a more formalized network where people feel like they all know more about Farm to School and have an opportunity to participate in it,” Smith said.