Bountiful harvest: New policy language, dedicated coordinator help expand Duluth school garden efforts
Lincoln Park Middle School eighth grader Brooke Thompson loves the "clicking" sound potatoes make when they're pulled out of the ground.
She finds the act of gardening therapeutic and the process satisfying, she said, as she tended her school's raised beds.
"I think of the potatoes, and how they were made by one potato," Thompson said, marveling at the amount being harvested one sunny day in October.
The Duluth school district harvested more than 1,750 pounds of produce this fall, much of it making its way into school lunches, lessons and snacks. The increase of more than 400 pounds over last year's harvest meshes nicely with newly included farm-to-school language in the district's wellness policy, and an Essentia Health-funded farm-to-school coordinator.
The district now has nine schools with active gardens and extensive programming that aims to touch all elementary school students as well as secondary school students who take specific classes or work it into their advisory periods.
St. Louis County Extension Service master gardener Lorna West was weighing vegetables at Lincoln Park's harvest. Increased farm-to-school efforts can be traced to a deeper awareness in society that healthy bodies make healthy minds, she said, and she points to millennials as helping turn the tide.
"I see that generation being much more aware of 'how can I take care of the earth, take care of myself?'" she said.
Renee Willemsen was hired to coordinate the various school efforts. She helped write the policy language that seeks to enhance nutritional and educational experiences of kids through the use of locally grown produce and school garden experiences. A big one is the seventh-grade trip to the University of Minnesota Duluth's Sustainable Agriculture Farm, but there are also tastings and harvest contests in many schools throughout fall.
Willemsen said she's exploring ways to build gardening into more schools. It depends on the amount of green space, she said, but farm-to-school work doesn't have to involve a garden. Just getting healthy local produce into tastings and meals is an important piece, she said.
"Some say the lunchroom is kind of another class," said School Board member Annie Harala, who has made health and wellness a priority during her term. "You learn lifelong skill sets with the foods offered to you."
The inclusion of policy language, she said, "helps us ensure it's not just a one-time thing. It's something we as a district value, and can carry on for years to come."
Essentia expects to continue funding the farm-to-school coordinator position, said Emily Anderson, the community health program manager at Essentia in Duluth.
The work being done in the district matches Essentia's goals of reducing obesity and increasing healthy food access, she said, and partnering on the efforts "has been an awesome thing."
Congdon Park Elementary's extensive garden has put kale, colored beans and grape tomatoes on its main lunch line. At East High School, culinary students make use of herbs and produce in the school restaurant. Lincoln Park's family and consumer science class helped harvest and then made dishes with potatoes, lettuce and carrots.
Lincoln Park's gardens — started by teacher Peter Mostrom — have been a boon to Deb Porter's FACS class, allowing her kids to work with healthier foods without the added expense.
"Kids are always asking me for food: 'Do you have any carrots, Mrs. Porter? Any cucumbers?' Last year I took a (student who was homeless) out to the garden to bring home food for supper," she said. "I am very grateful of all the work the team does in the summer."
Ordean East Middle School history teacher Kara Pavlisich coordinates much of the garden activity at her school, sending plenty of produce to the cafeteria. She talks about victory and Native American Three Sisters gardens in class, easily weaving them into history lessons. Kids helped her harvest remaining tomatoes before the recent snowstorm hit, and they've "been having a ball watching the green ones turn red."
"They eat and pick and laugh and learn, and that's what it's all about," she said.
Duluth schools with gardens
- Lowell Elementary
- Lester Park Elementary
- Valley Youth Community Center Garden at Laura MacArthur Elementary
- Lincoln Park Middle School
- Myers-Wilkins Elementary School
- East High School
- Ordean-East Middle School
- Congdon Park Elementary
- Piedmont Elementary
*There is work afoot to add gardens at Denfeld High School