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Concrete School District’s Farm to School program growing with added funding

Feb 1st, 2016 | Category: Features

Q&A with Program Planner Marjorie Bell: Classroom cooking, gardening, farm field trips and more

interview by Grow Northwest

The Concrete School District has a long-term goal of implementing year-round Farm to School experiential education for all grade levels. According to Marjorie Bell, a Program Planner with United General’s Community Health Outreach Programs, they are slowly filling in the gaps to make that happen. Bell, along with school staff, local farmers, and community members, have been working on the program since 2012, and in just a few years, have received community support and funding, and captured the interest of many students across grade levels.

This month, Bell joins us for a Q&A about what’s currently happening and future plans. A resident of eastern Whatcom County, she also organizes Local Food Works, a non-profit group that provides educational opportunities, seeds, bean pole kits and more to youth and families in the area. Clearly, she is passionate about this work, and we thank her for taking the time to share with us.

Several 4th grade students feed the horses at Ovenell’s Double O Cattle Ranch. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNITED GENERAL DISTRICT 304

Several 4th grade students feed the horses at Ovenell’s Double O Cattle Ranch. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNITED GENERAL DISTRICT 304


Can you give us a brief overview of Concrete’s involvement in Farm- to School, and the work you have done in recent years?

The Community Health Outreach Programs (CHOP) department of United General District 304 in Sedro-Woolley approached the Concrete School District in 2012, offering to partner on a Healthy Communities and Schools Initiative. We had been awarded a three-year grant from the Department of Health, to improve access to healthy foods in underserved communities. CHOP had worked with Concrete School District in the past, and felt that it was the community in which we had the best chance of making a measurable difference.

During our initial conversations with the school district representatives, community leaders, and local elected officials we heard over and over that school-based efforts were likely to be most effective in moving the needle on nutrition-related health issues, such as food access. A Farm to School (F2S) program rose to the top as a strategy because more than 60 percent of the students are eligible for free/reduced meals and eat breakfast and/or lunch at school. In addition, eastern Skagit County has an abundance of small farms and generous farmers who are interested in selling to schools, and there’s an inspiring can-do attitude in the community.

In 2013 we partnered with the school district and were awarded a USDA F2S Planning grant which allowed us to take the first small steps toward building a program. In 2014 United General was awarded an AmeriCorps/VISTA placement and was incredibly lucky to have Rachel Sacco join the F2S team as a VISTA volunteer. Last year, Rachel began coordinating a Harvest of the Month program, recruited several volunteers, and started offering experiential education such as cooking, taste-testing, and garden-based education in the classrooms, cafeteria, and the community.

In 2015 we applied for and were awarded a two-year USDA F2S Implementation grant, which we’re now beginning to execute. These are highly competitive grants and we look forward to the continued growth of the program that this financial boost will bring.

3rd grade students planting beans in the Angele Cupples Community Garden. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNITED GENERAL DISTRICT 304

3rd grade students planting beans in the Angele Cupples Community Garden. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNITED GENERAL DISTRICT 304


 Why do you think Concrete’s application stood out more than other districts?

The Concrete School District has been open to change and incredibly generous in supporting F2S activities such as taste tests, classroom integration of F2S themes, and a transition toward scratch cooking in the cafeterias. These activities are not easy to squeeze into a school day, and the USDA was impressed with their dedication. Food Services Director Marla Reed and her kitchen staff deserve a big shout-out here!

Our application stood out because we are strongly focusing on culinary skill development for kitchen staff—they will be learning how to accommodate fresh foods in the kitchen and building the capacity to purchase, prepare and serve more locally grown and raised foods. We are bringing in cooking instructor Kent Getzin, who has worked to transform Wenatchee School District meals by incorporating local buying and scratch cooking. For this project we are sharing Kent with the Whatcom Farm to School team in a regional collaboration that is appealing to the USDA.

A final reason our application stood out is the high level of community support for our F2S program, which is based on integrating food access, education and activities in the cafeteria, classrooms and community. These amazing partnerships show the program’s strength and capacity to be sustained after the funding ends.

Student must enjoy visiting local farms as part of the Farm to School program. What Upper Skagit farms participate and can you discuss what students and farmers like most about these trips?

During the school year we have taken field trips to Cascadian Farm, Forest Farmstead, Jericho Farm, and Ovenell’s Double O Ranch. We also take walking field trips as often as possible to the Angele Cupples Community Garden in Concrete. During the Concrete Summer Learning Adventure program,  day-campers visited Blue Heron Farm, Cascadian Farm, and Eye Spy Border Collies. Students love getting their hands dirty; transplanting corn at Cascadian Farm was a big favorite in the spring. They also really like choosing a personal pumpkin to take home in the fall, which 6th graders have done two years in a row at Cascadian.

Other highlights have been riding in a hay wagon to feed cattle at Ovenell’s; petting puppies and watching border collies herd sheep at Eye Spy; making their own green salads and dressings at Jericho; and harvesting (eating) raspberries at Blue Heron. We also have an upcoming field trip to Ovenell’s to see (hug) new calves and learn more about their Conservation Reserve Enhancement Project on the Skagit River. The farmers say their favorite part of field trips is connecting with the kids and sharing their love of the land, nature, and the noble profession of farming. They like helping the students make connections between what they’re learning in school and what happens on the farm. The farmers also encourage the kids to take an interest in nature, to know where their food comes from, and to consider being farmers someday.

What garden- and cooking-based classroom activities are available in the school district? Are all grade levels involved on some level?

Currently we have volunteers visit two elementary classes on a first come first served basis each month to offer cooking or garden-based activities. We also schedule walking field trips to the community garden whenever possible, where we coordinate seasonal activities like planting garlic in the fall and returning to weed and tend it in the spring. Kids who attend the summer program get to harvest the garlic.

Concrete 6th graders meet the Forest Farmstead pigs who eat school cafeteria scraps.  PHOTO COURTESY OF United General District 304

Concrete 6th graders meet the Forest Farmstead pigs who eat school cafeteria scraps. PHOTO COURTESY OF United General District 304

Thanks to a General Mills Foundation grant we are able to integrate gardening and cooking curriculum in 5th and 6th grades this year. The school district had an un-used portable classroom with a kitchen, which we have transformed into the Farm to School classroom and site for experiential education. A Leadership Skagit team will be fundraising for us to plant a school garden in front of the classroom this spring.

We are also working with North Cascades Institute to pilot a farming/culinary program for high school students this summer. A long-term goal is to develop a continuum of year-round experiential education for all grade levels; we are slowly filling in the gaps to make that happen.


The two-year USDA grant includes 12 culinary skill development classes for kitchen staff in Skagit and Whatcom school districts and Skagit/Islands Head Start. Can you explain what the classes include and will provide, and what school districts will be participating?

These classes are a complex challenge since we are asking the instructor to cover a lot of ground and serve two counties with multiple school districts. Rachel Sacco is coordinating the classes at Concrete School District with the objective that they will be trained and equipped to cook most meals from scratch after the 12 classes. Skagit/Islands Head Start center cooks are included in the Skagit classes to advance Farm to Pre-school efforts, and Darrington School District has expressed interest in sending staff as well. We are open to including key staff from other Skagit school districts, who can then take what they learn back to their own programs in a Train the Trainer model.

The Whatcom Farm to School team is coordinating classes for Whatcom County school districts and involving the Northwest Chefs Collaborative (per Sustainable Connections). To date I know Bellingham School District is participating and we’re hoping that several of the county schools will take advantage of this opportunity as well. As I said it’s a complex project, since each kitchen and staff is unique in their readiness for scratch cooking. Kent is a gifted instructor who will assess the skills and needs of each group and adjust his classes as needed.


In your experience visiting school students, what do you find most enjoyable and surprising? What are some of their favorite foods served at school during the Harvest of the Month?

I am always inspired by their enthusiasm and excitement to learn in the garden and kitchen. Rachel and I joke about ‘armies of students with paring knives’, but hands-on activities are a powerful way to engage kids who may not find success in daily academic work. They absolutely love doing ‘real’ stuff!

I am sometimes surprised at how little experience some students have had, which is why we’re teaching these skills. With Harvest of the Month students are exposed to a variety of new fruits and veggies with favorites being Cascadian Farm blueberries and raspberries— especially in yogurt berry parfaits and smoothies. Carrots are also very popular and the students have voiced their love of Farmer Anne’s carrots from Blue Heron Farm. When Anne’s carrots run out the students taste the difference immediately.


How do you see the Farm to School program growing in our northwest area? What are your goals for the remainder of the school year, and the next few years?

Farm to School is part of a much larger effort to rebuild local and regional food systems, and much attention is focused on this issue in our area. Great strides are being made in bringing back local aggregation, storage, and processing infrastructure for example, which is essential to support the local farm economy and to provide a safe, dependable supply chain for schools.

Interest in F2S programs is growing in the Northwest, often due to action from parents who want to see schools promoting better health through the foods they serve. As the barriers are removed on the supply side, I think more schools and districts will begin to test the feasibility for their own food service programs and the demand will continue to increase. Our F2S Community Advisory Team has set a number of goals, including: working with Leadership Skagit to build the school garden this spring; integrating F2S concepts into the curriculum at more grade levels; developing a vocational farming and culinary program for high school students; evaluating various aspects of the program to demonstrate its effectiveness; and building a program that is community-supported and sustained in the long haul.


What advice can you offer to school districts interested in doing more Farm to School curriculum, and to local farmers wanting more involvement?

A good place to start is by looking into curricula that align with existing subject matter requirements (Next Generation Science Standards sound familiar?). There are tons of resources out there so no-one has to reinvent the wheel. Ask a teacher or department to pilot the integration of F2S-supporting curricula, and recruit parents and community members to help with the hands-on components.

Form a Wellness Advisory Team to look at low-hanging fruit for improving nutrition environments, and offer in-service training for building the skills needed. Be on the look-out for local/regional opportunities such as workshops, seminars, etc. aimed at reducing barriers to F2S programs in general. Farmers can begin by reaching out to existing programs and offering to host field trips, provide a “Meet the Farmer” opportunity in classrooms or Back to School nights, donating produce for a taste test, and sitting down with a Food Service Director to discuss growing specific crops for the meal program.


Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

I’d like to offer a big Thank You to all the people and organizations working on F2S and related issues on the policy and systems level. You’re helping reverse years of the industrial food system which we’re now seeing is harmful to people, animals, and the environment. And if you’re wondering what each of us can do to make a difference I offer the wise words of Michael Pollan, who once said, “You can vote with your fork, three times a day.”


To make a donation

Donations for Concrete Farm to School can be sent to the Foundation of United General District 304 @ 2241 Hospital Drive Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284. The Foundation is the non-profit through which supplemental grants for the program are received.


Participating farmers

Several Upper Skagit farms work with the school district, including Cascadian Farm, Forest Farmstead, Blue Heron Farm, Jericho Farm,  Ovenell’s Double O Ranch, and Eye Spy Border Collies. Students also walk to the Angele Cupples Community Garden in Concrete, and visit the Learning Adventure program at North Cascades Institute during the summer.

Published in the February 2016 issue of Grow Northwest

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