Groton seeks grant to expand farm-to-school program

Groton — As the FoodCorps service member for the town's schools, Emma Rotner has seen students excitedly coming up to her in the cafeteria to show her vegetables on their trays while more students are bringing them for snacks.

And students, once nervous to try fruits and vegetables, are now sampling kale and eating apples.

Through farm-to-school initiatives at Charles Barnum and Claude Chester Elementary schools, students have planted seeds in school gardens, cared for the plants and tasted the food they grew, Rotner said. Teachers also incorporated the gardens into the curriculum. For example, students took measurements in the garden for a lesson on square footage and learned about fractions while making salsa and fruit salad.

"That’s been a really fun way to make hands-on learning come alive for students," Rotner said.

Since 2015, Groton has partnered with FoodCorps, an affiliate of AmeriCorps that works with school districts, typically in more under-served areas, to provide farm-to- school programs, she said. The program offers educational activities to teach students about growing food and provides farm-fresh produce to introduce students to new foods and help them create healthy habits for the rest of their life.

Comprehensive educational programs currently are in place at Charles Barnum, with a 51 percent free or reduced lunch population, and Claude Chester, with a 76 percent free or reduced lunch population, according to a summary of the program from the school district.

The Groton school district is now applying for a two-year $100,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to continue and expand the farm-to-school program and fund the program coordinator position, said Superintendent Michael Graner. The Board of Education approved the grant application at its meeting on Monday.

According to the program summary, Groton's farm-to-school program encompasses partnerships with local farms for food, as well as for field trips for students. Procurement of locally grown food has risen 60 percent, and local produce is distributed at nine schools and for summer meals. Fitch High School's dietitian and chef have introduced new dishes featuring the local offerings that are served throughout the schools, and high school culinary students are also assisting in developing new additions to the menu.

In addition to school gardens at Charles Barnum and Claude Chester, there are also gardens at Mary Morrisson Elementary School and West Side STEM Magnet Middle School, said Ernie Koschmieder, the school system's director of food services.  Volunteers and families help out at the school gardens, he said.

"It's just bridging the community with the schools," he said.

The grant would allow the school district to continue the farm-to-school program and expand it throughout the district, as well as construct a greenhouse at Fitch High School, which would serve as a living classroom for students, said Koschmieder.

The proposed expansion of the program calls for adding more farmers to the list of providers and purchasing more locally sourced items; offering more field trips to local farms, including the Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center, Stone Acres Farm and Whittle's Willow Spring Farm; and offering after-school cooking clubs at more schools, among other components, he said.

The school district also wants to offer the comprehensive programs at all the schools and boost food production at the schools by creating new gardens and providing cooking and gardening equipment, according to the summary. Fundraisers with farm-to-table establishments in the local area and more community involvement are among the goals to make the program sustainable.

k.drelich@theday.com

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