October 7, 2015 Edition

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Hoxie FFA officers Zane Burleson (from left), Hannah Coats and Annie Parish pick bell peppers out of the school's garden. Hoxie is one of three Lawrence County school districts participating in the Lawrence County Farm to School Initiative, a program that provides fresh produce for students and community members.
TD Photo ~ Megan Heyl

Farm to School program offers
fresh produce, learning experience

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

The Lawrence County Farm to School Initiative started three years ago after Rhonda Fowler, NEA Education Cooperative career and technical education coordinator, submitted a grant that provided funding for the Sloan-Hendrix, Hoxie and Lawrence County school districts to provide fresh produce for students.

Traditionally, the program helps schools purchase more food from local farmers and ranchers in their communities, expanding access to healthy local food for school children and supporting local economies. However, due to some difficulties in locating farmers to work with and a high interest in teaching students to grow produce themselves, the Lawrence County Farm to School Initiative instead emphasizes on-campus gardens to provide for the cafeterias.

"The students take pride in raising and providing food for their school and are learning about healthier food choices," said Terry Rorex, who helps to coordinate the program. "Faculty members have been extremely supportive and can incorporate Farm to School into the curriculum."

Through this program, the three schools are using high hoop houses and raised beds to raise both warm and cool weather plants. Students assist in both the construction and maintenance of the gardens, as well as the planting, tending and harvesting of the vegetation.

Focusing more on the plant science education, Ella Ellingson, a volunteer with FoodCorps, works to coordinate special programs for the students and provide hands-on experiences with food production from beginning to end.

"Many students don't know where their food comes from," Ellingson said.

Students learn
life skills

In addition to the benefits of having more fresh produce for the schools, students are also learning skills that will aid them long after graduation.

"Students will be able to share learned skills with their family, which can lead to more and more food being raised locally," Rorex said.

Students have already felt the pride of growing their own gardens and the benefits it brings to their schools and communities.

"It's very rewarding that the produce we grow is being served to our fellow classmates through the cafeteria," said Sloan-Hendrix student Haley Lingenfelter.

Sloan-Hendrix is raising produce in raised beds for the school but has also planted some in the rodeo arena. In there, spinach, mustard, collards and kale is grown and made available for the community.

"Growing things for the community will help the community later down the road," S-H student Samuel Light said. Classmates Katie Gann and Jade Moore agreed that providing food for the community was the most rewarding part of the program.

Since the start of the program, students across the three districts have grown a variety of produce, including tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, chard, radishes, turnips and beans.

Through the planting and harvesting process, students have developed a sense of self worth that growing their own food provides, according to Hoxie FFA Secretary Annie Parish. "There's nothing like picking the first tomato of the year," she said.

Hoxie students discussed not only the benefits of growing the produce, but also the skills learned through building the raised beds they use in the program.

"The process was really fun. I'm really proud of what we constructed and what the students have been able to grow," FFA Vice President Zane Burleson said.

Going into the project, some students had never really constructed anything or even used a hammer. FFA President Hannah Coats said she has learned skills that she will take with her for the rest of her life.

Hoxie school is currently in the process of using four acres of land for planting. Two and a half acres is being used to grow a turnip patch, which is open to the community. The other land will be used by the elementary school.

The Lawrence County School District, making use of a recently renovated greenhouse, plays a vital role in germinating seedlings, which are then transported to the other schools.

"Getting the greenhouse this year has made taking plant science classes a fun learning experience," said Walnut Ridge student Drake Smelser. "We had a more hands on experience rather than learning out of a textbook."

The benefits of the growing experience at Walnut Ridge have aided students far beyond the classroom.

"The greenhouse also helps me in the summers on the farm because I am much more familiar with different plants and soil types," said student Luke Wall. "Pursuing a major in plant science, the greenhouse and plant science class are helping set the basics for my college degree."

Beyond produce, Walnut Ridge School also grows flowers in spring, which are available for purchase.

Program hopes
to have long life

The program so far has been possible due to the $100,000 USDA Farm to School implementation grant, as well as other grants and donations. Fowler explained that the Farm to School grant period will close at the end of the year and alternative funding will have to be utilized to keep the program going.

"I continue to apply for new grants," Fowler said. She added that anyone interested in volunteering their time to assist in maintenance of the gardens (especially in the summertime) or making a donation to support the program can contact her at the cooperative at 886-7717, ext. 1211.

Though the program is young, those involved have said that the benefits have already been felt across the county and if the schools and communities work together, it will continue to grow.

"Many community members have praised the program," Rorex said. "They enjoy seeing our students being active in a positive way, learning lifelong skills and engaging in something that benefits the entire community. Farm to School is a unique way to meet the many challenges in supplying food that is safe, economical and local."

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