FROM THE GROUND UP
The realities of creating school garden lunch programs revealed.
WRITTEN BY STINA FAUSONE
PHOTOS BY ASA GILMORE
October is Farm-to-School Month, and garden programs have been growing in number and popularity in Reno-Tahoe schools. Parents, students, and community members alike have stressed their desire for healthy and sustainable food in schools. But the cost of investing in a school garden is not the only challenge; the implementation and sustainability of these programs takes resilient community support and involvement.
The biggest problem that many district officials face is not the pushback from state or federal regulations. It’s the lack of community support once these projects gain approval; turnover in staff, lack of collaboration and coordinating amongst team members and school leaders; and/or unwillingness to participate in a project due to a failed garden in the past.
Todd Rivera, executive director of business services at the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, expands on some of the complexities of and barriers to the district’s program.
“On a broad level, some of the obstacles we have here in the Tahoe-Truckee area are really just the weather and access,” Rivera says. “Any year-round school gardening program to provide both food and education for the students requires an enclosed facility that is safe for the students to enter and use.”
Many proposed school gardens face safety concerns in the Tahoe-Truckee area. The area’s often-extreme weather conditions mean that a sound structure must be built to create a thriving school garden that can be used year-round. All buildings in California must be approved by the Division of the State Architect and meet snow load requirements, as well as fireand life safety requirements, which include installed fire sprinklers.
Vegetables versus habitat
Prior to creating a school garden plan, a school official must decide what kind of garden is best suited for the site’s environment.
Michelle Hunt, schoolyard habitat coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, works throughout Nevada at a variety of school districts, including Washoe, Storey, Lyon, Douglas, and Clark counties. Hunt creates habitat gardens across the state, focusing on native plants and pollinators, mainly because habitat gardens use little water.
“We receive pushback occasionally,” Hunt says. “Habitat gardens don’t look like your standard, schoolyard vegetable garden. They don’t provide food and aren’t what people are typically used to. Milkweed is a big plant we like to introduce to gardens to attract monarch butterflies and other types of pollinators, which in turn creates a more sustainable environment for other wildlife in the area. But in colder seasons, the garden tends to look [unappealing].”
Still, Hunt is optimistic.
“These habitat gardens go great with veggie gardens,” she says. “Students learn about various types of pollinators, and this translates to a healthy vegetable garden.”
Habitat gardens she has helped create have introduced native bee and butterfly species back into areas where they had previously died out. Bees create a potential risk for allergic students, but school officials with school gardens now have EpiPens (epinephrine injections) available in the event of stings.
“Of course there is concern when it comes to those students that do have mild to severe allergies to insects and various pollinators,” Hunt says. “But the district has been more than willing to have discussions and work with us to allow flowering plants, which was the issue that raised alarm initially, as they do attract these types of insects.”
Vegetable gardens require more water and quite a bit of upkeep, though they potentially can invigorate lunch programs.
All about volume
Many schools in the district have thriving school gardens in place. Mount Rose Elementary in Reno, Caughlin Ranch Elementary in Reno, and private schools such as Mountain View Montessori in Reno have created successful vegetable gardens that provide learning opportunities and healthy eating options. But constructing a true school lunch program that mainly draws upon its school garden bounty would require that students, teachers, and community members produce food at a high volume, which now cannot be accomplished with the currently approved school garden size.
TTUSD, Plumas Unified School District, and some of Lyon and Storey counties’ school gardens, along with hoop houses at Silver Springs Elementary, Yerington Elementary, Smith Valley School, and many of Dayton’s schools, provide produce straight from their gardens. However, this mostly is for tastings, scheduled farmers’ market events, and assignments that ask students to develop recipes with what’s grown at their schools.
Jessica Linford, food service expert with thePUSD, works in a small community with small schools. Still, Plumas County High School’s garden is able to provide food for the cafeterias in both the high school and elementary schools due to strong community involvement and financial support.
“We utilize a lot of veggies from our high school production garden in our cafeterias,” Linford says. “Our elementary gardens are used primarily as demonstration and educational gardens, although occasionally food from those gardens makes it on our serving lines, which is very exciting for the students who grew it.”
Urban Roots in Reno — a seven-year-old nonprofit garden education program — has played a major role in school gardens as well. Kim Daniel, education director, and Fayth Ross, executive director, have worked diligently with school officials to showcase how school gardens benefit instruction. For instance, Daniel and others helped school garden leaders at Caughlin Ranch Elementary School in Reno create a prospering school garden program that now offers fresh fruits and vegetables to participating students.
When it comes to healthy lunch programs that use school garden produce, food safety plays a big role.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture has carefully outlined School Garden Food Safety Guidelines with input from the Nevada Department of Education, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, Washoe County Food Policy Council, and the Oregon Department of Education’s Farm to School Program.
NDA officials’ main goal is to help schools and community leaders create the right relationships that will facilitate a safe school garden program.
“We see the school garden as an amazing tool for students to see where their food comes from, but, of course, safe practices are a concern when creating a lunch program that uses food directly from the garden,” says Catrina Peters, school nutrition services manager for NDA’s Food and Nutrition Division. “Right now, we have 35 school gardens in Northern Nevada, and 24 of those are in Reno or Sparks.”
The Washoe County School District’s school garden health code dictates that each garden be pesticide and chemical free, use only certain fertilizers, and not contain crops that are dangerous for certain food-related allergies (such as peanuts and soybeans). All of these regulations can increase the costs of creating a usable garden.
Nonetheless, school district officials are ready and willing to work through issues that may arise in the beginning stages of proposed school garden programs.
“There always is concern and a potential for safety issues,” Hunt says, “but the idea of school gardens has really gained popularity, and the benefits of these programs have created demand in school curriculums.”
While researching this story, Lake Tahoe-based writer Stina Fausone has learned how much upkeep goes into a school garden. She has started to develop her own green thumb that inspired a shoebox herb garden outside.
School Garden Food Safety Guidelines
Washoe County School District School Garden Handbook
Healthy Communities Coalition
Urban Roots School Garden Program
Michelle Hunt, schoolyard habitat coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service