By Billy Polansky
Today, Columbia Public Schools, Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, Heart of Missouri United Way and the Boone County Children’s Service Fund Announced a pilot program that will connect students with their food. The program aims to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, improve physical and mental health, and improve academic achievement. The program will begin in the 2018-19 school year and serve all 3rd and 5th grade students at: Alpha Hart, Elliot Battle, Benton STEM, Blue Ridge, Derby Ridge, New Haven, West Boulevard, and Parkade Elementary Schools. These eight schools were selected because they all have rates of Free and Reduced Lunch over 50%. “We know that students who qualify for free and reduced lunch have lower levels of academic achievement when compared to the student body as a whole. Research shows that students who improve their nutrition, improve academically. So, if we improve nutrition for our students, they will be healthier and achieve more.” Said Dr. Peter Stiepleman, Superintendent of Columbia Public Schools.
The partners in this project emphasized how this would help students make good choices. “Every school, across the district, has a garden bar. We make a variety of fruits and vegetables available to students every day. School lunch has changed a lot in the last ten years, there are many healthy choices. Unfortunately, students aren’t always motivated to make the healthy choice. There is huge potential for this Farm to School Program to get kids excited about the healthy options.” Said Laina Fullum, Director of Nutrition Services at Columbia Public Schools.
About 1,000 students will participate in the Farm to School program. Each student will participate in 17 different food and agriculture-related activities throughout the school year. The activities include place-based learning, school gardening activities, fruit and vegetable tastings, cooking demonstrations/activities, and field trips to Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture’s Urban Farm. These activities will encourage healthy diets, fruit and vegetable consumption at school and home, and spending more time doing healthy outdoor activities.
CCUA and the United Way will organize workdays to build new garden spaces at six of the eight schools. Additionally, CCUA’s staff will provide ongoing support throughout the year to ensure the gardens are successful. In the past teachers, parents, and volunteers have been responsible for planting gardens and the results have been inconsistent. In this new multi-school effort, CCUA and the school district are looking for more consistency across the eight participating schools. During the spring, summer and fall months CCUA staff will make weekly visits to each school garden to ensure they are receiving adequate water, fertilizer, and any pest problems are being managed. Often in school gardens, teachers can become overwhelmed with this constant maintenance, especially during the summer months. CCUA’s involvement will remove this burden from teachers and puts it in the hands of its experts.
“This is a milestone in our relationship with Columbia Public Schools. We have been providing hands-on experiences to students and teachers at CPS for the last nine years. This program will build on that partnership, improving our collaboration and coordination as we move forward. Together our organizations are creating a position within the school district that will work with CCUA’s staff and volunteers to promote local agriculture and healthy food choices for our kids.” Said Billy Polansky, Executive Director of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture.
Local agriculture, school gardening, and getting students involved with their food aren’t new concepts to the school district. In 2014, Columbia Public Schools received a grant from the USDA’s Farm to school Program to increase local food procurement, increase the number of indoor and outdoor vegetable gardens, and provide hands-on activities to middle school students. The Boone County and United Way funding will build on the foundation laid by the USDA grant.
“The creation of the Farm to School Coordinator Position will enhance existing food and gardening lessons by making linkages across topics. We have hydroponic gardens in all elementary and middle schools. We can conduct scientific experiments which show the differences between lettuce grown indoors versus outdoors. This lettuce can then be used in health lessons and featured on the schools’ garden bars. Making connections across the school building, across subjects, and even across town with hands-on activities will provide more meaningful relevant experiences to our students. Ultimately, we are creating a fun, interdisciplinary, and effective model of learning which can be used across the district.” Said Mike Szydlowski CPS Science Coordinator.
Kelly Wallis, Director of the Boone County Children’s Service Fund expressed her enthusiasm for the project. “We are really impressed by this project’s high level of collaboration. The program is working to improve the physical and mental health of some of Boone County’s most vulnerable children by promoting healthy lifestyles. Our board looks forward to this pilot program’s implementation and will be following the program closely.”
The Boone County Children’s Service Fund is awarding the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture $99,060 in the 2018 calendar year. $41,784 will be used for this pilot, $36,343 will be used to provide hands-on lessons at various afterschool and summer programs and for in-school lessons in the remainder of the 2017-18 school year, and $20,933 will support CCUA’s Opportunity Gardens Program which trains low-income families to be self-sufficient backyard gardeners.
The mission of the Boone County Children’s Services Board is: To improve the lives of children, youth and families in Boone County by strategically investing in the creation and maintenance of integrated systems that deliver effective and quality services for children and families in need. The fund is financed by a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in November 2012. The board first awarded contracts for services in 2014, and since then has contracted for over $28 million to purchase services from local agencies that serve children and families in Boone County.
United Way is making an Education Impact investment of one-time funding in the amount of $17,914 to build six new gardens and $13,653 to maintain all eight garden spaces thoughout the year. CCUA will continue to receive United Way Health Impact funding for Opportunity Gardens in the amount of $59,402.00.
A panel of volunteers, comprised of community stakeholders including education experts, reviewed all grant applications and made recommendations to the Heart of Missouri United Way Board of Directors. “We are thrilled about this opportunity to improve health outcomes in our community while enhancing equity in education,” stated Rachel Delcau, Director of Community Impact at Heart of Missouri United Way. Rachel went on to express confidence in CCUA’s capacity to deliver the Farm to School program, which will improve education outcomes in our community.