Six miniature “chicken tractors” sat on display at Green Gate Farms last week. Their designers were fifth graders at the Austin Jewish Academy and they had come to present their prototypes to the farmers. Quirky yet comfortable, these Suess-like houses would make any rooster crow.
There was the rambling, two-story Hotel Cluck next to a contemporary California style house with glass walls and folding roof. Another design featured walls of straws that collected rain water and recycled it back to the birds. One of these designs will be built at Green Gate and entered in the April 9th Austin Funky Chicken Coop Tour next month (www.austincooptour.org)
“The second floor hallway leads to the nesting area,” one student informs us. “And you can see here on the wall the sign that says fresh eggs.”
This out-of-the-classroom thinking is the result of a passionate teacher, a supportive principal, and a farm that is student-friendly and education-oriented. As Erin and I listened to these budding architects explain their creations, we shared the same reaction: Why didn’t we have these real-life, community service opportunities when we were in school?
Now in its second decade, the movement to connect farms and students –Farm-to-School as it is known — has inspired a new
generation of youngsters to reconnect with their food. In April, Austin will host the National Farm to School Coalition’s annual conference, bringing hundreds of educators and food activists together to share their successes and challenges in improving the health of our children. Alice Waters, the grand dame of school gardens, is the keynote speaker.
Another champion of school nutrition and gardening – Michelle Obama – recently announced proposed FDA changes in food labeling. This latest strategy in the obesity epidemic reflects new research on fat and how the real culprit was not the bacon but the excess sugar used to replace fatty flavors.
Public health is notorious for changing directions as science and fads respond to new research on how our bodies work. That’s why it’s so important to get students not just talking about real food but seeing it up close. At the IDEA school system in the Valley, young farmers, including one of our first interns, Will Summers, have been growing vegetables on-site for nearly five years.
IDEA’s Edinburg campus, for example, offers a Farming 101 class where seventh graders plant and harvest vegetables, incorporating the activity into their lessons. IDEA recently won a $42,000 USDA grant to enhance the program.
Closer to home, the Sustainable Food Center is putting a new twist on school-based nutrition programs by offering weekly vegetables to the parents of Perez Elementary students. Supported by Double Dollars and Lone Star payments, this first-of-its kind concept makes CSA-type food delivery more affordable to those who need it most. Green Gate is excited to partner with SFC on this pilot project as it matches with mission Erin and I had for this farm from the beginning.
Bringing the farm to the school is a key ingredient for enhanced school nutrition, but at Green Gate we think it’s even more important to bring the school to the farm. Thousands of students have passed through our Green Gates over the years and now schools are accepting our invitation to incorporate sustainable farming into their curricula. Like Karen at AJA, CSA member and Austin High School teacher Kelly Wroblewski has engaged her students in service learning projects designed to develop skills while meeting the needs of the farm. In addition to bringing her students – 140 of them – for a day of service learning on the farm, select groups are creating a self-guided tour or the farm and logos for our products. Likewise, CSA member and Ecoconsultant Sayuri Yamanaka of the Magellan International School regularly incorporates farm tours and picnics as teaching opportunities for her lessons on composting and other sustainable practices.
Like those over-the-top chicken coops, there are no limits to how we are seeking to create healthier relationships with the food we eat and the farmers who grow it. Please tell your teachers we are eager to share our classroom with them.