Lopez Island is a small island community of 3,000 people, located in the Puget Sound, a 50-minute ferry ride from the mainland. Essentially, all the food and fiber consumed on the island is imported via the Washington State ferry system. Primary goals of our project are to design and teach a 4-month elective high school agricultural science class, Principles of Ecological Food Production, taught in collaboration by Henning Sehmsdorf and Jennifer McFarland, the high school mathematics and science teachers. Additionally, we will collaborate with Dana Cotton, the school chef, to select and prepare vegetables with the class and to serve these vegetables in the school cafeteria. The class will be taught at S&S Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Homestead Farm, which is located approximately ½ mile from the school. The school will provide transportation for students to travel to and from the farm.
Lopez is a small rural island community that relies on environmental conservation practices to protect its limited water and land resources. Farming is a viable economic option if more islanders are better trained in environmentally sound farming practices. By training high school students in ecological agricultural production, we believe we can directly impact their potential to earn a living on family land. For farming on the island to be sustainable, it must not impact the fragile watershed negatively. Therefore, farming without pesticides is essential to economic and environmental harmony. In addition, for farming to be economically sustainable on the island, production must not rely on imported inputs, as shipping costs to the island can be prohibitive. Additionally, we believe that there is sufficient place in the local market for island farmers to provide food to their own community and to not have to ship their produce off-island, which can also be cost prohibitive. Thus, we are designing a multi-pronged approach to educate young potential farmers and to educate our community to use local and seasonal production.
1. Teach students at Lopez Public Schools how to produce nutritious vegetables year round using low-cost production techniques that are environmentally friendly.
2. Develop school menus with the local school chef to use island-produced food year round, to teach students how to prepare such foods, and to generally improve the nutritional quality of the school lunch program.
3. Give high school students an opportunity to learn in hands-on fashion agricultural science for credit.
The class in “Ecological Food Production” met twice each week for two hours, from September through June. On the first day of each week, students came to the farm to learn about animal husbandry, water recycling, compost building, seed and plant propagation, soil structure and biology, crop maintenance and data collection, human nutrition, harvesting and preparing foods. They were given short readings to clarify the work and observations done that day.
On the second day, students met with Lopez High School teacher, Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, to discuss their readings, watch and take notes on relevant videos, read and analyze model essays, discuss their chosen topics, and write reports.
Each week students also harvested seasonal foods, such as potatoes, greens and dried beans, and delivered them to the school cafeteria. The students organized themselves into teams to clean and prepare the farm-grown foods to be served in the school cafeteria for lunch.
Other project outcomes included students participating in building a 6-foot electric fence to protect summer vegetables from deer and rabbit predation.
Students also built a 12’x45’ hoop house to grow succulent greens during the winter. The design of the hoop house improved on the structure used the previous winter that had not been able to withstand seasonal winds.
BENEFITS AND IMPACTS
The students’ increased understanding of whole foods and of ecologically sound production methods resulted in several student senior projects, and in two cases led to choosing college programs related to ecology and sustainability.
The class has had a ripple effect on other students, parents, school administrators, faculty, and kitchen staff. For example, at least three or four families of students have established home gardens for ecological food production to supply their domestic needs. Other students have influenced family food choices through discussion of food nutrient content and impact of processing on food quality. The menus served at school lunch have been revised to feature predominantly locally grown greens and other vegetables. The school administration is developing plans for ecological school programs to get students involved with helping and learning about the environment.
The “Ecological Food Production” class is continued at Lopez Island High School without further grant funding. Plans are under discussion to expand the program into the middle and elementary grades.
In addition to the farm hosting the class in “Ecological Food Production,” three other farms have joined in making contributions of vegetables, fruit, and meat to enhance the school lunch program. Parallel farm-to-school and farm-to-cafeteria programs are being developed on neighboring islands.
Parents, teachers, and farm customers have expressed their appreciation and support for this class and its impacts on the community as a whole. This opinion was expressed in the editorial section of the local newspaper, “The Islands’ Sounder,” September 22, 2004.
At the presentation of the poster describing this project at the Tilth conference, several mainland teachers requested farm visits to learn more about the program. School districts and farmers on neighboring islands are in the process of developing similar programs. Staff at WSU extension in Seattle have responded favorably to the project.
I would recommend to other school districts and farmers who are considering starting a school agricultural curriculum project to inform them of similar efforts around the country.
In my experience, schools typically do not have the budget to pay full value for the food they purchase from local farmers. Given that, how do farmers survive being part of this program? Are parents willing to pay more for high-quality school lunches, or can monies be raised in the community to support farm-to-cafeteria projects?
In spring 2004, student Tasha Wilson published her report, “Ecological Food Production. Farm-to-School Project on Lopez Island, WA” on the Navigating Our Future website, a countywide non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable development, and in the Washington State University Extension newsletter, Sustaining the Pacific Northwest.
During Fall 2004, Carol Miles and Henning Sehmsdorf created and presented a poster, “Farm-to-School-Project,” at the WSU/OSU Research Symposium. Forty producers, teachers, and school personnel attended. The poster was also displayed at the Lopez Public School Open House, where parents viewed and discussed the work of their children.
The poster was again displayed at the King County Small Farm Expo in March 2005 and at the Whidbey Island Conservation District in April 2005.
On May 14, 2005, the students from the class participated in an all-day farm workshop titled “Real Food on the Farm” at which the foods grown and processed during the class were featured.
Class members were also invited to present their work at the Youth Summit, organized by Navigating Our Future in June 2005.