Just as students are enjoying the waning weeks of summer soaking in the Willits sun, the crops of Brookside School Farm are relishing the rays and showing their first signs of ripening. Bursts of red tomatoes poke through thick green rows at the one acre farm, tucked behind Brookside Elementary School, awaiting the arrival of the new school year because this year Brookside Farm’s produce has a special destination: the school cafeteria.
The Willits School District, in a partnership with The Gardens Project of North Coast Opportunities, and Little Lake Grange are committed to getting healthier food into schools through a farm to school program. Recent years have seen a boom in farm to school programs nationwide as a means to provide an alternative to the subsidized commodity, high-calorie, low-nutrition food typically found in school cafeterias. The goal is to make fresh, nutritious food available to students at an affordable price, while concurrently supporting local farmers and the local economy.
“The whole farm to school program in Willits is new and we’re just figuring it out,” says Antonia Partridge, manager of Brookside Farm, “the goal during the school year is that the majority of the food will go to the cafeteria.”
Established four years ago by Jason Bradford, the farm was initially funded by a grant from the Post Carbon Society to find the best method for producing food in this region in a post peak oil society. In the fall of 2009 Bradford transitioned out as farm manager and Partridge, then assistant farm manager, stepped in to the position. With funds drying up and not enough hands on the farm she describes that time as “very challenging.” People invested as Community Supported Agriculture members wanted to see the farm go in various directions but after several meetings, Partridge said, they decided to go with the farm to school model, made possible through a grant from North Coast Opportunities using American Recovery and Reinvestment Fund.
“I think everyone has their heart in the right place, but the school just doesn’t have the budget to make nutritious food available,” Partridge says. “There are so many links between the quality of nutrition and academic performance.”
Research collected by the non-profit Action for Healthy Kids has shown that students who eat healthy, nutritious meals learn better and perform better in school. With childhood diabetes and obesity on the rise it may seem obvious that better nutrition supports better health and learning, but with the corn dogs and pizza pockets of a typical school lunch, farm to school programs are a huge step towards reconnecting children with healthy food while supporting local production and distribution networks. These Stiff budget restraints and limited spending money leave the school district with many difficult financial decisions and virtually no option for purchasing affordable, nutritious food. Currently Brookside Elementary has only two part time staff members working to feed the students. Partridge has worked closely with the food staff to coordinate crops with items used most frequently in the cafeteria.
“I planted a Roma type tomato of the heirloom variety that grows great in the Willits climate,” Partridge said, referring to the Amish Paste tomatoes beginning to ripen at Brookside. “It is a more complex and robust tomato with higher solids and lower water.” This type of tomato is ideal for paste and sauce that can be used in pizza and pastas, two dishes served often in the school cafeteria. In addition to tomatoes, several hundred heads of garlic have been harvested from the farm, and potatoes, which can provide healthy alternatives to sides like tater tots, are beginning to be harvested.
Brookside Farm has growing crops and a staff eager to implement the farm to school program but what it needs now is helping hands, and that is where the community of Willits comes in to play.
“What we need is help,” says Partridge, “farming is a very time consuming activity . . .we have activities for people of all skill levels and there are a dozen different ways that people can plug in and help the farm.”