The Southeast Island School District (SISD) faces a few challenges when it comes to getting fresh fruits and vegetables. Its eight schools are scattered around several islands, with many accessible only by float plane. Produce travels long distances on a barge from Seattle, making several stops before reaching a Southeast Island school. Most vegetables don’t grow well in Southeast Alaska’s rainforest.
Despite the odds, Southeast Island students, teachers and communities are working together to provide their own freshly grown produce for their school lunch program. The district’s school garden program began in 2014, with a greenhouse funded by an Alaska Workforce Development Grant. When Thorne Bay School began using a wood-fired boiler, they funneled some of the heat to the greenhouse to help grow foods year-round. An indoor hydroponic system grew lettuce that was used for school lunches.
Four years later, the district has six greenhouses, one orchard, and over 100 berry bushes. Chickens and rabbits freely roam the orchards. Three schools now use an aquaponics system, where fish provide nutrients to the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish.
Fresh salad bars with locally grown produce are on the menu every day. Students also have access to the greenhouses and will eat fresh tomatoes as a snack.
“Students were happy to eat salad when they realized they could pluck leaves from the plants themselves,” said Megan Fitzpatrick, a teacher in the district’s Farm to School program and the district's greenhouse manager. "It’s rewarding to hear kids go from asking ‘That’s what a cucumber plant looks like?’ to eating salad every day at school.”
Along with the fresh produce, the school gardens add other benefits. The Southeast Island School District provides fruits and vegetables for local farmers markets. School curriculum includes the garden as well. For example, photosynthesis is taught in the greenhouse, and kids learn geometry by measuring garden beds, how much soil to fill them with, and how many plants can be added to each bed. The garden also has taught students job skills in agriculture.
This past summer, the school district received a national Farm to School grant that will help expand the successful program. The district’s future plans include providing training for safe-handling of local produce to food service workers in all eight schools, reclaiming 80 percent of food waste by separating garbage from compostable materials, making produce available in all eight schools’ cafeterias three times a week, and using surveys to show students’ awareness of a healthy diet.
The school district’s Farm to School program is challenging and a continual learning curve. It’s difficult to fit time in the daily class schedule that is solely dedicated to the garden. Yet, those involved in the program feel there’s nothing more rewarding than working with children and teaching them about food.
“If there’s anything that unites all walks of life, it’s food and it brings all people together,” said Fitzpatrick. “We all have food in common.”
October is national Farm to School month. To learn more about Farm to School in Alaska, visit http://dnr.alaska.gov/ag/ag_FTS.htm.
Photograph courtesy of the Southeast Island School District