When kids from the Washburn school district were picked to travel to the White House in April to help first lady Michelle Obama plant a South Lawn vegetable garden, it was a very big deal to the town of about 2,000 residents.

Then the group was asked to return.

Five students and two school employees leave today to join other students in helping Obama and celebrity chef Rachael Ray harvest and prepare food from the garden.

Washburn - among three districts picked to join two D.C. schools in the efforts - was chosen for its “robust” garden programs and its use of produce in its school cafeteria, said Deborah Kane, national director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program.

School districts that aren’t on the national radar are among those sought, she said, and Washburn fit the bill: “A small town, not a very long growing season, but being super innovative using high tunnels, with some community partnerships in place,” Kane said.

That honor is bringing pride and validation to educators and kids in the little community on the edge of Lake Superior in Northwestern Wisconsin, where 560 students attend its schools. For several years the district has invested in and sought grants for sustainability and agricultural teachings, resulting today in a monarch butterfly sanctuary, vast vegetable gardens, an apple orchard, a 40-acre school forest, an aquaponics lab, a pollinator garden, a high tunnel and a bioswale, which removes pollution from runoff surface water; an important feature for a school that sits on a hill that slopes to Lake Superior.

“There is this little dot of a school district in Wisconsin that is having an impact that resonated with the first lady,” said Superintendent Tom Wiatr. “That’s just cool.”

The district is part of the state Green and Healthy Schools program, which means it’s working to reduce environmental impacts and costs, improve health and wellness and increase environmental and sustainability teachings. The district doesn’t use pesticides, and it has a recycling program. Kids from age 3 and up are out in the gardens weeding and planting. At the high school, biology and other science classes are tending to the plantings there and an “agripreneur” program has begun, which allows selected students to grow and market tomatoes and other crops.

The district also has an aquaponics class for its recently constructed lab, which focuses on growing yellow perch indoors and using their waste to fertilize lettuce and microgreens that are used in school meals. In fact, hundreds of pounds of food grown by district children and employees end up on student trays throughout the school year, and some of it is sold at farmer’s markets and used by local restaurants.

District educators rank environmental and agricultural teachings equally with core subjects like math and reading.

“It’s about creating global citizens. We don’t know what kids are going to need 15 years from now,” said elementary and middle school Principal Al Krause. “We have a moral obligation, and the opportunity to do it.”

The community embraces a “local” philosophy, and that’s been important in carrying out projects, Wiatr said, because investments have been made with taxpayer money.

“It’s a feeling of protecting, honoring, learning and providing students with information to influence their lifestyle,” he said. “Reading is important, math is important, but learning how to take care of our Earth and be a part of it is critically important to our students and the culture of our school. We wish it was the culture of every school.”

The district has partnered with universities on research of monarch butterflies and on aquaponics studies, and also works with the University of Wisconsin-Extension service. It shows students on a broader scale that their work has meaning, with different career paths available, educators said. And learning about agriculture isn’t just about environmental responsibility, said Greta Kochevar, the Green and Healthy coordinator and family and consumer science teacher.

“For a lot of families there is a financial barrier in access to healthy food that prevents them from eating well,” she said. “Students are learning how to get food economically and can have control over nutrition, and not have finances be a barrier.”

About half of the district’s students are enrolled in the federal free and reduced price lunch program.  

Kids eat - and enjoy - the food that they have grown, said head cook Lori Fibert.

“It’s their stuff,” she said. “We have no issues with kids on salad bars. They pretty much wipe us out.”

The scratch-cooking cafeteria makes use of whatever staff can get its hands on: lettuce, spinach, kale, sunchokes, winter squash, jicama, cucumbers, potatoes and tomatoes. A huge yield of basil last summer allowed for the kitchen to make a year’s supply of pesto, used for pasta bar days.

While the district has hired help to maintain the gardens during the summer months, the high tunnel allows for longer growing seasons and more chances to learn, Kochevar said. They plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, but being out of school for the summer eliminates a huge chunk of the process, she said, and with the high tunnel, they are involved from start to finish. There are only three months out of the year the high tunnel takes a break.

In the same vein, the aquaponics technology works well in a region with a short growing season, said science teacher Sean Augustyn.

“It’s the idea you can grow indoors all year round,” he said, and it doesn’t have to be on the large scale of the school’s efforts. “You can do it with a fish tank on a desktop.”

At year’s end, the perch are harvested for a fish fry.

The district uses its programs as a selling point, but it also warns parents touring a school: “We tell them, don’t expect your child to come home clean every day,” Krause said. “We want them playing in the dirt … it’s part of what we value.”

New projects are coming. Plans are afoot to set up a sugarbush and make maple syrup. With support from the School Board and the residents of Washburn, if they want to try something new, “we just make it happen,” Wiatr said.

Gardening at the White House, the kids were enthusiastic and “clearly had planted lettuce before,” Kane said, prompting Obama to ask them all back to harvest, in her efforts to highlight the increase and impact of school gardens.

The USDA awarded The Bayfield Regional Food Producers Cooperative in Washburn a grant in 2014 that was used to build the high tunnel at the high school and start the agripreneur program.

“To have all of those elements, given the size of their school district and presumably the size of their budget,” Kane said, “it just really speaks to the commitment of the district.”

Fourth-grader Erin Hinson said last week she was excited to return to Washington, D.C., In April, she knelt next to Obama, helping to plant lettuce. The first lady was “laid-back,” she said, and they talked about her school’s garden back home.

“Before, I was really nervous,” Hinson said. “Then, I was just digging in the dirt.”