Planting strawberries in towers, greens in a hydroponic system and carrots in a small swimming pool are just some of the fun activities kids are doing this summer through the Alaska Farm to Summer Meal Program.
Summers can be a challenging and hungry time for children. In Alaska, over half of students qualified for free or reduced lunches during the school year. When the school year comes to a close, these children typically lose access in the summer to the affordable or free meals. To address this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Summer Food Service Program helps approved sites provide nutritious meals for free to children younger than 18.
The Farm to Summer Meal Program pairs up with these sites to promote healthy eating by growing their own fruits and vegetables or purchasing them from local farmers and farmers markets. This summer, seven school districts, childcare programs and a 4-H Club are connecting students, food service staff and teachers to healthy local foods and learning about the origins of their food.
A goal of the Farm to Summer Meal Program is to increase children’s preferences for fruits and vegetables by providing opportunities for hands-on learning for them to grow, harvest, purchase and prepare these healthy foods. The Bethel 4-H Club found kids usually “pass” on the peas during the after-school snack.
“After planting pea seeds, at least two kids requested peas, which had never happened before,” according to Sharon Chakuchin with the Bethel site.
The cool temperatures this summer slightly delayed planting, but they haven’t dampened the enthusiasm.
“Naturally, playing in the dirt was loved by all,” said Natalie Ray with Ray’s Child Care and Learning Center in Palmer. “We use organic dirt, and children use garden gloves and little shovels.”
This is the third year Loretta Fitting with the Alaska Gateway School District in Tok has participated in the Farm to Summer Meal Program.
“We love to garden. The kids are always ready to learn new things,” she said. “I am hoping to have them start their own gardens at home.”
The Alaska Division of Agriculture Farm to School Program and the Department of Education and Early Development Child Nutrition Programs initiated the Farm to Summer Meal Program in 2016. This summer, the Department of Health and Social Services, Obesity Prevention and Control Program provided funding for seven programs to participate.
Everyone can celebrate Alaska’s gardeners, farmers and local food during the 2018 Alaska Farm to Summer Week, July 23-27. Check out the Campaign Toolkit to find activities, recipes and where to find fresh, healthy Alaska Grown foods.