Groton awarded federal grant to expand farm-to-school program

Groton — With clipboards and pencils, fourth-graders fanned out across the garden outside Charles Barnum Elementary School on Tuesday to look for stages of the plant life cycle.

As they excitedly searched the garden, entirely planted by students, they found everything from marigold seeds to an eggplant at the fruit stage.

The students are learning about growing vegetables and the nutritional value of local produce through the school district's farm-to-school program. 

The program will now continue and expand through a two-year $100,000 grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, who supported the grant, visited Groton on Tuesday to get a first-hand look at the farm-to-school activities and talk with district staff and students.

"It’s such a huge benefit for our students," Food Services Director Ernie Koschmieder said. "Farm-to-school brings local produce and fruits into our schools at all grade levels."

With the grant, the district will expand its gardens so every school in the district will have one by the end of the year, set up cooking clubs during and after school, provide nutrition education, offer taste testing of new menu items at the schools and purchase produce from more local farms, Koschmieder said.

Four years ago, Groton began partnering with FoodCorps, an affiliate of volunteer organization AmeriCorps that partners with school districts on farm-to-school initiatives. With families sending their kids to Groton Public Schools for two out of three meals a day, Koschmieder said his team goes above and beyond to make sure that nutrition is a top priority and to buy fresh produce from local farms, such as Whittle's Willow Spring Farm in Mystic and Hunts Brook Farm in Quaker Hill.

Emma Rotner, former FoodCorps service member who was hired as the school district's farm-to-school coordinator, said the program teaches kids where their food comes from, ways they can cook and eat the food, and what the food does for their bodies when they eat it.

By getting kids outside and planting seeds in the garden, they take ownership of it and want to sample the fruits of their labor.

"They want to take care of it, they want to watch it grow, and, then at the end, want to eat it, so it is really impactful for them to be part of that whole process," she said, especially when they also do a cooking lesson.

Students also participate in lessons in the classroom and garden about food and "taste test" new foods in the cafeteria.

Charles Barnum student Lillian — school officials preferred to identify students by first names only — said it's a fun to explore out in nature and have the garden at their school. The 9-year-old said whenever she walks by the garden, she always takes a peek to see how all the plants have grown.

She said she has eaten kale and nasturtium, an orange edible flower, from the garden.  

"I really like how fresh they are," Lillian said. "It's not just like from the grocery store and probably has been sitting there for two and a half days."

Assistant Superintendent Susan Austin said the farm-to-school program is so valuable for students' minds through the mindfulness they experience in the garden and for their bodies as they make healthy choices.

After Charles Barnum, Courtney visited with students eating lunch at Catherine Kolnaski STEAM Elementary School, where they sampled a local corn salad, which Shyla, 7, called "awesome," and Andie, 7, called "amazing."

With the reauthorization of federal child nutrition legislation, which governs initiatives including school meals and supplemental nutrition programs, coming up, Courtney, who serves on the education committee, said he hopes lawmakers can use Groton as a "poster child" for why farm-to-school efforts should be expanded.

"It’s connecting kids to the food that’s in the serving line because they helped grow" them, Courtney said, adding that it's a good way to break down any resistance to trying foods, like chickpeas or tomatoes. When kids have planted it, watched it grow, and harvested it, they then want to eat it, he said.

Nathan Rose, a service member with FoodCorps, said they are trying to integrate healthy food into the kids' lives, for example by adding kale to smoothies or adding spices, tomatoes and lime juice to corn in the salad.

"They love it," he said. "We do what we can to make the local produce that we have in Connecticut as fun and exciting as possible."

k.drelich@theday.com

If you go

Groton Public Schools will host an inaugural farm-to-school community dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 10 at Fitch High School Cafeteria. The cost for the dinner, which will benefit the farm-to-school program, is $5 for adults and $3 for children. More information on the dinner and registration is available at www.grotonschools.org.

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