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What’s Growing: Farm To School Program Is Planting Seeds of Change

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Well, the bad news is that one out of five youth in Oregon (10 – 17 years old) is considered obese.

The good news? That is the lowest rate in the nation for childhood obesity. (Okay, that’s maybe mixed news.)

The even better news is that Rogue Valley Farm to School, is pushing to decrease those rates and improve eating habits in the region. (And, statistics be told, Oregon is one of the few states where adolescent obesity rates have dropped over the past decade.)

Executive Director Sheila Carder makes sure to point out that they do much more than school gardens—or, stated differently, that school gardens do more than just grow carrots and pumpkins. They grow good habits.

Rogue Valley Farm to School is addressing big issues,” she says, “like community health, equity and inclusion, caring for the environment and developing an understanding in younger generations as to the connection between the health of the planet and the health of our bodies and the health of our communities.” She continues, “There are communities these days where children are eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at school. Not so much here yet, but Oregon is actually one of eight states in the country that is serving as a pilot program to find ways of incorporating more locally grown, fresh fruits and vegetables into school lunches.”

Carder adds, “The school gardens are super important as they serve as the avenue for children to truly connect with food—hands-on learning and more—and they are one piece of the bigger puzzle of how do we get folks back to eating healthy, fresh, non-processed, nutrient rich foods, and how do we keep the cycle of connection between local farmers, food, families, children, schools going so that we are cultivating healthy children, healthy communities and happy, thriving farmers.”

But she adds, they do much more than that.

Publisher Phil Busse talked with Carder about what that much more is.


RVM: How many students serving each year?

SC: Rogue Valley Farm to School serves more than 6,000 students every year. Our Tasting Tables in school cafeterias give students a chance every month to taste vegetables and fruits grown in the Rogue Valley. Our Harvest Meals are Farm Field trips where classes of 20 or more students have a chance to spend four hours on a farm, harvesting food, learning about how to care for soil, water, plants, insects and more and then work together to prepare a meal from the food they harvested. Our Digging Deeper and School Partnerships programs allow us to work with an entire grade level at a school throughout the school year, with regular visits to the school garden, teacher professional training, farm field trips and more. We also serve thousands of students, and farmers, through our work with school districts throughout Jackson and Josephine Counties, helping Nutrition and Food Service Directors source fresh, locally grown and produced food to serve to students for lunch. We are cultivating healthy children, environmental stewardship, relationships with farms and a thriving local economy.

RVM: If there was one enduring lesson you’d like each student to receive from your programming, can you summarize that? 

SC: We hope all students understand and appreciate the process of growing and eating fresh, healthy food. We hope they are inspired and empowered by this knowledge and that it connects them to their community and the earth. 

RVM: There is such a diversity in your programming, from pumpkin patch trips to insect studies. How is it decided what to teach/offer? 

SC: Our lessons for our on-farm Harvest Meals are designed to suit the season and always be hands-on. We have a menu of lessons that include connections to math, science, health, and language arts from which teachers can select. When we work in school gardens we meet with teachers to see what they are studying in class and we work to bring those studies outside into the garden. We find that we can teach nearly any subject in the garden and it has a deeper meaning because it’s a tangible experience. As students apply math and science concepts in the garden they are also learning about where their food comes from and connecting to the environment.

RVM: Unlike school gardens in urban areas, I would imagine that most students in southern Oregon already have a pretty good idea about gardens and where their food comes from. Is that a misconception?

SC: Rogue Valley Farm to School serves students throughout Jackson and Josephine County. While some of these students have spent their lives helping in the family garden or learning how to preserve food, most have not. For many students, getting their hands in the dirt, learning how to grow their own food is something they have rarely, if ever, experienced. For all of the students, being in the garden, watching a plant grow, harvesting food and making a meal, is magical. Even for our staff, every time we are out in a field with students our wonder of it all is re-ignited. Most surprising to me is that with all of the bounty of the farms surrounding us, every school in the Rogue Valley isn’t able to serve fresh, locally grown food at every single lunch. The school Nutrition Directors and Rogue Valley Farm to School are working hard to change things.

RVM: What’s your favorite vegetable to grow? To eat?

SC: My favorite vegetable to grow is the zucchini—it is so rewarding! Give it a little love and it gives it back 10-fold, 100-fold, 1000-fold. . .  I love to eat zucchini as well, but probably my favorite vegetable to eat is eggplant, or maybe it’s green beans fresh off the vine, or carrots, those are amazing and so much fun to pull up out of the earth, and then there are all the delicious kinds of lettuce, sweet onions are incredible too, and tomatoes, wow, yum, but officially they are a fruit.

RVM: What is the most under-rated fruit or vegetable?

SC: I would say the two most under-rated vegetables are beets – all of those canned beets have not done that incredible vegetable justice, they are so beautiful, so delicious, and incredibly good for you—and celery. I did not like celery at all until I had a fresh, organic celery just harvested from the field. It is incredible!

RVM: You earned a graduate degree in science journalism. One, that seems like a very specialized field. And, two, how does one go from journalism to garden-based education?

SC: I have loved the natural world my whole life, and I loved writing. So when I was looking for a career I realized I wanted to find a way to bring my love of the natural world into people’s hearts. Science journalism was a great way to do it. I spent ten years traveling the world, writing stories for newspapers and magazines, and developing exhibits, that I hoped would help people understand how amazing the world is, and hopefully take care of it. Getting children out in the garden exploring, and writing grants to make sure lots of children get that chance, ends up being a pretty natural evolution for my desire to connect people with the places where they live and the planet that supports them. 

RVM: You moved to the Rogue Valley nearly a decade ago. What brought you here? Is it the same thing(s) that keep you here? 

SC: My husband Ben and I moved to the Rogue Valley almost ten years ago because we wanted to raise our daughter in a place where people rode their bike to the farmers’ market, where people were friendly and down-to earth and good, locally produced food was appreciated. I spent most of my life moving once every three years, my father was in the Air Force and I had the chance to live in lots of different places, all over the world. There is no place I would rather be than in the Rogue Valley and no place that has been able to hold me for so long, without ever wondering if I should be someplace else. It is a fantastic place to live. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of such a great community.


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