Students from Mesa County School District 51 in Colorado have been busy cultivating crops for donation to a local food bank and for use in their cafeterias thanks to a partnership called the Community Alliance between the district and the Colorado State University (CSU) Western Colorado Research Center (WCRC).
Seeds for the crops, such as cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash and melons, were planted by District 51 elementary school students this past May in a garden set aside for the kids at the WCRC facility in Orchard Mesa. They were tended over the summer by interns from Western Colorado Community College, then harvested by the students in September.
Cafeteria signage emphasizes the connection between student farming activities and what’s on the menu.
Of the nearly 2,000 pounds of produce, two-thirds is being donated to the Food Bank of the Rockies for distribution to food-insecure area residents, with the rest destined to wind up in the District 51 school meal program.
There, the WCRC bounty joins fresh product secured from seven local farmers with whom the district recently struck supplier relationships. Between the Community Alliance with CSU and the farmer relationships, District 51 has doubled the amount of its produce needs it gets from local sources from around 10 percent to 20 percent, says Dan Sharp, the district’s director of nutrition services.
Meanwhile, he adds, by allowing the students to take part in the gardening process, the Community Alliance partnership teaches valuable lessons about the food chain.
“The Community Alliance provides exceptional locally grown produce, then exceeds all other producers by providing the full cycle of the agriculture process to D51 students: planting, harvesting and then eating as part of the school meal program!” he says.
In addition to the planting/harvesting program, Community Alliance also provides K-12 STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) education enrichments by hosting field trips where students learn about topics such as plant life cycles, pollinating insects and water use in agriculture.
Back at District 51, Sharp’s department promotes its work with local growers aggressively. A menu sent to all district households identifies the farmers and what products they supplied by name and includes capsule stories and pictures of the work the department does with farm-to-school efforts throughout the year, including the work with Community Alliance and CSU.
The district meal program offers students a rotation of daily grain, dairy and other protein options off of a salad bar at all school sites. They include eggs, yogurt, quinoa and wheat berry salads, cottage cheese and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables each day, including those sourced locally.