Home-grown greens hit the lunch menu at South Whidbey Schools

Students are rooting for veggies on South Whidbey, both literally and figuratively.

Students are rooting for veggies on South Whidbey, both literally and figuratively.

Classes from the middle, elementary and academy schools are preparing to serve produce grown on campus in school lunches throughout the district.

The move is a first for any school in the nation to provide school-produced veggies to the cafeteria under the protocol of food management service Chartwells.

Master Gardener Cary Peterson has been hard at work building garden beds for produce at the “Farm Field,” an area between the South Whidbey Academy and South Whidbey Elementary School along with a field at Langley Middle School.

Peterson, a volunteer, said she was confident that produce from the garden would reach school lunches this year and planted everything she could in anticipation that it would all work out.

The gardens feature peas, carrots, bok choy and varieties of lettuce to name a few. Peterson tilled 2,000 square feet this year and has room to expand in the fall, when she is planning on building a hoop house for produce to grow in the winter.

With every step Peterson takes to develop the garden, the students also lend a helping hand. They are learning to harvest, weigh, till, keep records, ensure food safety and how to grow.

“The kids are loving it,” she said. “I’m so excited about it. It opens up a whole world for them.”

Superintendent Jo Moccia said getting the produce to the cafeteria is a move that was a long time coming. Since she started in 2011, the garden program at the school has been growing in small ways.

Moccia remembers when she was first introduced to the school gardens while she was applying for the position of superintendent. Seventh-grade teacher Susan Milan brought in radishes for all the applicants. Since then, the garden has grown to provide food for local food day celebrations and even school board meetings.

Moccia said Peterson took the initiative to understand the requirements and work to develop the gardens to meet Chartwells’ standards – a first for the company.

“I don’t think anyone saw it as doable, but Cary did,” Moccia said.

Moccia also gave credit to several South End organizations and residents such as David Pfeiffer, director of the academy, for obtaining grants, along with Whidbey Island Nourishes, Good Cheer, the South Whidbey Schools Foundation and the Whidbey Island Garden Tour for their support and volunteers.

In the coming months the garden workers will switch gears from getting the food in the cafeteria to finding ways to sustain the garden. Moccia said she will be looking to the community for volunteers and donations through fundraisers.

“I hope people see this as a worthwhile venture for students so we can sustain their learning,” she said.

“For us to be able to grow it ourselves and put it on the table is monumental,” she said.

Several teachers have made the garden part of their class including Susan Milan’s 7th grade STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) enrichment class.

The 23 students in the class focused on several projects working in the greenhouse, refiguring the water filtration system, meeting organic certifications, and even earning their food safety licenses. All students in the 7th grade class had a chance to work in the garden in other classes as well. Milan said the garden provides a meaningful and relevant learning experience for students.

“Having a real-world, meaningful project makes learning a lot more relevant for them,” she said.

Milan hopes these lessons will go beyond the garden and provide lifelong experiences for students. Already, she can see them becoming more connected to their food and the food system.

“I hope to instill a change in the culture where kids are eating better foods and making healthier choices.”

Bruce Kinney, director for the food service company Chartwells, worked to make sure the processes were lined up with the company’s program.

The result is a superior taste that’s organically grown, Kinney said.

“The product quality is wonderful,” he said. “You can really taste the difference between corporate-grown produce and organically-grown produce without pesticides and industrial fertilizers.”

The food will be available at all schools for the remainder of the year and continue as long as the crops are available. If something is not available through the school gardens, the district will outsource it through the Chartwells provider, he said.

Kinney hopes that by providing quality food to kids they will become more enthusiastic about an organically-grown and healthier menu. He hopes the change will bring more students lined up for the salad bar.

Seventh grade student Weston Kemp said he has enjoyed working in the garden and learning about produce.

“We don’t have to worry about if it’s old or not, we can just grab it from the garden and it’s fresh,” he said.