Near my home, there is an ice cream store. They make their own, often with local ingredients, and it is consistently the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. They buy from nearby farms. For a while, they bought mint leaves and fresh strawberries from the elementary school just up the hill from my house. It was a school project, but the project is over.
Owning and operating a family farm is a significant challenge, but the proliferation of local farmer’s markets offers hope. Five miles from the elementary school, one of our county’s few remaining farms occupies 120 acres. The farm “was established in 1850 and was operated as a dairy farm until 1988…” They are “always looking for volunteers to lend their helping hands out in the fields. Volunteers would be responsible for planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting of vegetables and flowers. There is no set schedule; come as often as you want.” Also: “We welcome you to explore the farm and say hello to our animals.”
“The family has decided to preserve the farm to ensure its use for agricultural purposes for years to come.” Seven days a week, the family operates a small market on the property, seven days a week, and once a week, they operate a stand at a popular local farmer’s market.
Every day, about 20,000 people eat lunch at schools within a 15-mile radius of the farm. About 15% of local schools in the U.S. participate in some sort of a farm-to-school program, so 85% do not—this varies greatly by state and locale. In Pennsylvania, for example, the 2015 Farm-to-School Census, reported an emphasis on local fruits, vegetables, and milk, less so, meat and poultry. Among schools surveyed, about 16% of school spending went to local products, a total of $18 million.
The 120-acre local farm is operated by the family’s only remaining farmer. Brenda has a master’s degree and she’s dedicated, but she’s just one person, and she’s about sixty years old. She hires about fifteen people from the community, mostly teenagers, and she’s able to keep things going. But for how long? There is no next generation. Real estate developers would happily buy her farm—they’ve bought almost every other farm in the county.
We’re living at a pivotal moment in time. We could continue to live as we do today, with minimal interaction between students and local food resources. We would lose this farm—once it’s turned into a housing development, it will never be a farm again. Or, we can connect the dots. The farm could become a source of food served at local schools. The farm and the schools could develop a cooperative learning programs. As part of their Food & Cooking, or My Friends, Family & Community, individual students may decide to work at the farm. For some, it would be fun and instructive to get their hands dirty, to work in the fields planting, pruning and harvesting, but others might see an entrepreneurial opportunity (My Life; Numbers & Money) to develop new areas of business—a traveling farm stand on wheels, supply to local private schools, a web business for flowering plants, and so on.
High school students—teenagers—may be more ambitious. Remember the local school that supplied strawberries and mint for ice cream? That school sits on ten acres of land. The elementary school building, a parking lot, and athletic fields fill about half the space, but there’s still a lot of green space. And…it is adjacent to religious school with eight acres, and a large public park with more than thirty acres. If they could use a few of these acres, maybe they could start their own farm. That’s a bigger effort, but something to hand off to the community and the next generation of students.
Along the way, we’ve managed to help secure the future of a 120-acre farm, educate a lot of students about how food is grown, feed thousands of residents from locally raised food, and changed the community’s perception farms and schools. This won’t work everywhere—correction, this won’t work this way everywhere—but there’s ample opportunity to customize, to develop mutually-beneficial solutions for students, schools and community.