Farm to School
Y4Y recently chatted with Renee Starr, the Community Schools Manager with Brooklyn Center Community Schools in urban Minnesota, and Megan Grubb, the Farm to School Coordinator. They shared a bit about their small district’s popular and beneficial farm to school programming that impacts both the school day and out-of-school time. [Podcast]
Y4Y: Ms. Starr, tell us a little about your district and its student composition.
RS: Brooklyn Center is a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and a really diverse city with a large immigrant population. Students of color make up over 90% of our student body. Also, around 85% of our families qualify for free or reduced lunch. Systemic racism and poverty have long created barriers for our community and our mission is to become a justice-centered school community that fuels the unique genius of each student.
Y4Y: As an under-resourced community, can you tell us a little about the grant you secured from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)?
RS: Our district was awarded the USDA Farm to School grant and we are super lucky to have a fantastic, part-time Farm to School Coordinator, Megan Grubb, on staff. I’ll let Megan describe her role.
MG: There are two main parts of my job — the first part is working with our nutrition services team to ensure our students have access to fresh and local foods in the cafeteria and that kids are able to explore the world through nutrition and food, and the second part is to work on curriculum and programming with school-day and after-school staff, as well as community partners, so our students have hands-on opportunities in the school gardens. It’s been a wonderful opportunity for our urban school.
Y4Y: Our listeners might be interested in learning how you’ve been able to braid USDA funds with your 21st CCLC grant for family and community engagement activities, and what those activities look like.
RS: Our district often braids 21st CCLC funds with other streams, including USDA dollars, to support educational programs and events for families and community, such as STEAM nights, cultural celebrations and more. Megan, do you want to talk about something you’ve offered at an event in the past?
MG: Sure! One fun thing we’ve done is taste tests. I try to add something unique, such as fermented foods, to the event menu and then I provide a little education on the item.
Y4Y: Can you tell us a little about the out-of-school time STEAM and other activities that have been included, thanks to your farm to school programming, and how they’ve been received by students?
MG: Yes, we’ve definitely got a lot to share here! I’ve supported various 21st CCLC clubs after school, including a BC (for Brooklyn Center) Leadership Council. This group of high schoolers has shown an interest in nutrition and wellness and started a team Instagram account to highlight awesome Farm to School and nutrition services initiatives in our district. I’ve also run garden clubs after school and in the summer where kids get their hands in the dirt while they learn. I really like to partner with our STEAM coordinators to plan for outdoor experiences about biology, insects and wildlife, and more. Lastly, one of the coolest things we’ve done was coordinate the planting of a small orchard at our elementary school — students helped me plant trees that will bear fruit they can one day eat.
RS: Megan really does so much awesome stuff, and I just want to add how engaging all of these Farm to School activities are. I pop in and out of a wide variety of activities, and students in the garden or working with Megan and her partners are consistently engaged in learning. They’re out in the elements, moving around, working together — it’s really healthy, exciting and meaningful.
Y4Y: Would you like to give a little press to your partners in your farm to school programming?
RS: As a community school district, we have a large number of fantastic partnerships, and one of our favorites is the Three Rivers Park District. Three Rivers is a wonderful organization that offers free access to a number of park reserves, educates and engages youth and community around nature, and encourages wellness and fun for all. Three Rivers staff have lent their expertise to our staff and students for quite a while now and are a huge asset to our district. Megan helps coordinate field trips to Three Rivers’ Gale Woods Farm, which is a functional farm. On these field trips, students learn about agriculture, land stewardship, and growing food. We also have a fantastic farm educator from Three Rivers that works with our students to maintain the gardens and learn to cook healthy snacks using items they harvest.
Y4Y: Were staff able to continue or replicate any of the farm to school elements during the pandemic?
MG: Yes! Throughout the pandemic, we’ve hosted a few virtual family engagement events, including our 2020 Fall Festival. For this event, I facilitated a wreath-making lesson. I packaged some supplies for participants to pick up, and the rest of the supplies were all things that could be found in nature so families were able to collect them on their own. During the activity, I was able to discuss foraging with activity participants and it was a big hit. I also offered a fun club during the summer of 2020, when we had pivoted on a dime to create exciting virtual activities for the first time ever. With this online garden club, we provided everything a student might need over the 6-week course for free for students to participate. Lesson plans included virtual urban foraging walks and tutorials on windowsill microgreens, homemade sauerkraut, urban poultry keeping, garden art and a number of other easy activities to do at home.
Y4Y: Do you have any words of advice for other 21st CCLC programs looking to institute a farm to school program?
MG: Before kicking off a farm to school program, I think it’s essential to listen to your stakeholders, especially the students you’ll be serving. It’s important to have the input from all members of your community and in all stages of the process. Be sure to also get buy-in from the numerous department staff members that a farm to school program will have an impact on, including food services, operations, teachers and school leadership. Try to also consider the sustainability of how your program can flourish over a number of years. Lastly, build a strong network of external partners to help support your program, including local organizations, farmers, food hubs, etc. This collaboration with partners is part of what makes our community schools model so great and really makes our community stronger and more integrated.
Renee Starr holds a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Minnesota. She feels incredibly lucky to work for Brooklyn Center Community Schools, where honest and innovative efforts to fight the permanence of racism are taking place.
Megan Grubb earned her Master’s in Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems in Germany at the University of Hohenheim. She’s worked as the Farm to School Coordinator in Brooklyn Center Community Schools for the past two and a half years.