A College of Charleston-based, multi-agency farm-to-school initiative funded by grants from Boeing will go statewide beginning in 2015.
The program will expand from Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester counties to include counties across the state, where the Medical University of South Carolina’s Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness has worked to help schools implement wellness policies.
“Farm-to-school is a social movement that creates an atmosphere of optimism and excitement about eating for optimal health and wellness, which is important for a number of reasons including that healthy people drive community economic development,” explains Professor Olivia Thompson, farm-to-school director within the Mayor Joseph P. Riley Institute for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston.
Jessica Jackson, global corporate citizenship manager at Boeing South Carolina, adds “the farm-to-school initiative is important for a number of reasons. It promotes healthy eating and living habits with children at an early age; increases access to locally-grown foods; and, through comprehensive school-based gardening programs such as the Green Heart Project, it promotes S.T.E.M. learning through the experiential process of starting and maintaining a school garden.”
The farm-to-school initiative is designed to support the state’s farm-to-institution programming and has five main components that strengthen both the demand and supply sides of the farm-to-school equation, as outlined below. Thompson says that each component is necessary for success:
- Workforce development for educators: Clemson Extension agents Amy Dabbs, Jennifer Schlette, and Zach Snipes have developed “School Gardening for South Carolina Educators,” a new online course with one full day of hands-on instruction that assists educators in the creation of sustainable school gardens. Teachers who complete the course earn continuing education credits; receive cutting-edge, cross-curricular course materials and supplies needed to construct or improve gardens; and are paired with Clemson Extension master gardeners and South Carolina farmers for ongoing agricultural technical support. Additionally, this past summer teachers participated in a curriculum writing workshop and authored a S.T.E.M.-focused textbook for students in grades K-8 that will be published and available for use in garden classrooms in 2015. The textbook incorporates applications in business/entrepreneurship and soft skills such as leadership and also includes a nutrition supplement written by nutritionist Dana Mitchel.
- Community, family, and student engagement: The Green Heart Project provides technical assistance to participating schools wishing to implement comprehensive, school-based garden programs designed to engage youth in farm-to-school programming. Project staff facilitate public-private partnerships between local businesses and participating schools in order to strengthen community ties, while providing needed financial and volunteer support to scale gardens and sustain educational programming. Students’ family members have opportunities to participate in Cooking Matters©, which is a national program administered locally by the Lowcountry Food Bank. Program instructors teach families how to shop for and prepare healthful meals on a budget and they incorporate South Carolina-grown foods along with produce from school-based gardens during cooking classes.
- Workforce development for school nutrition staff: School nutrition staff are trained by certified chefs from the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College to prepare and serve healthful meals to school children using local produce, as directed by U.S.D.A. school nutrition guidelines. Also, local chef Miles Huff is working with other local chefs, school food service personnel, and nutritionists to create a farm-to-school cookbook that will be published and available for use in South Carolina schools in 2015.
- Workforce development for farmers and food systems leaders: Lowcountry Local First’s program entitled “Growing New Farmers” provides new and beginning farmers with farm apprenticeship, farm incubation, and land-matching programs. Additionally, in 2015, trainings will be conducted to provide farmers and food systems leaders from across the state with toolkits that include food production; farm business and marketing for new farmers; recommended workshops and field trips; videos of lectures; and evaluation materials. Beginning in 2015, Lowcountry Local First farm apprentices will be able to earn a certificate in sustainable agriculture through the College of Charleston’s Center for Continuing Education JobBridge Certificate program.
- Produce supply chain infrastructure and management: Agent Harry Crissy with the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development and faculty member David Pastre with the Clemson Center for Architecture in Charleston are leading teams of students to design and build H.A.C.C.P.-certified farm kitchens that will enable farmers to more easily participate in farm-to-school as well as in other markets. Participating farmers will be provided with H.A.C.C.P. food safety instruction at a low cost and, upon course completion, farmers will be able to lease kitchen space for a nominal fee.
Two farm kitchens – the first of their kind in South Carolina – will be operational in 2015: One in the Charleston area under the management of Sweetgrass Garden and one in Greenville under the management of Mill Village Farms.
“It is essential to have collaborative programs like these that address the challenges of getting local foods into schools by tackling the issues across the entire food system, from seed to salad bar,” explains Nikki Seibert, sustainable agriculture director at Lowcountry Local First. Bobby Behr, athletic director at Ashley Ridge High School adds, “by starting a garden in every school, for example, the kids see where produce comes from and they are willing to eat the fruits and vegetables that they have grown. We have seen a 570 percent increase in vegetable sales in our school cafeteria, where the kids sell the produce that they have grown in the school garden to the cafeteria.”
College of Charleston students are an integral part of this farm-to-school initiative. Hundreds of students help in the schools, on the farms, and with the research and evaluation. Internships (paid and for course-credit) along with post-graduate public health fellowships have been created for College of Charleston students and graduates to gain programmatic and research experience needed for entry into graduate school and the workforce.
“Acceptance into top graduate programs and schools has become incredibly competitive,” Thompson says. “To get into a top school of public health, for example, students need to have both field and research experiences and, ideally, they should be a co-author on a scientific manuscript. Students can get such experiences as farm-to-school interns or as post-graduate fellows.”