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News / Northwest

Farm-to-school programs flourish in Washington

Demand from school districts is outpacing state funding for the program

By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard
Published: April 9, 2024, 6:10am
3 Photos
11-year-old Gus Griffin (second-to-left) and classmates dig up weeds in one of Port Townsend&rsquo;s three gardens. March 28, 2024.
11-year-old Gus Griffin (second-to-left) and classmates dig up weeds in one of Port Townsend’s three gardens. March 28, 2024. (Grace Deng/Washington State Standard) Photo Gallery

At Salish Coast Elementary School in Port Townsend, a group of fifth grade students is asked a math question: If a farmer wants to plant four seeds per foot in two 40-foot rows, how many seeds will the farmer need?

It’s the kind of math problem teachers often ask fifth graders. At Salish Coast, though, it’s not theoretical: “Farmer Neil” asks the question, and the students plant the seeds.

“If you know you helped make the food, it always tastes better,” says 11-year-old Gus Griffin, who’s helping plant 320 bean seeds in one of Salish Coast’s three gardens. (That’s the answer to the math question, by the way.)

Salish Coast’s gardens are part of Port Townsend School District’s farm-to-school program, and “Farmer Neil” is what the kids call the school’s garden production manager, Neil Howe. Howe tries to teach kids math, science and research skills through gardening. He also tries to foster their curiosity.

Funding farm-to-school

In the 2021-2023 state budget, Washington set aside money specifically for the farm-to-school program for the first time in hopes of expanding it. The state allocated $5 million from the American Rescue Plan – the pandemic relief package President Biden signed in January of that year. There’s a 2026 deadline for states to spend money from that law.

Washington’s 2023-2025 budget provides another $5 million – about a quarter is from the state and the rest is federal. Since the budget proviso is written to be ongoing, WSDA expects lawmakers will include $5 million in state funding for the program in the next budget cycle.

Some schools also support their programs using local dollars. For instance, Port Townsend’s program is largely propped up by a local property tax levy. Last year was the first time the district was awarded WSDA funds, which amounted to a small part of their funding: $20,000.

The biggest grant for farm-to-school that Port Townsend received this year was $150,000 from USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentive Initiatives, said Shannon Gray, the district’s food services director. The money covered some staffing and equipment costs. Gray likened keeping the program going to a puzzle of different funding sources.

“We get lots of volunteers, lots of donations. I can’t do this without donations — and just as many grants,” Gray said.

“Every time I find a grub out there, I try to link it back to science. ‘What is this? Does anybody know?’ I want them to pass it around. I want them to want to know what that is,” Howe said.

 

The school also gets beef, pork and grain from local farmers, which means it participates in all three elements of farm-to-school: school gardens, food education and local food procurement. The specifics vary, but nearly every state has some kind of farm-to-school program.

Washington’s was established in 2008, and since then, farm-to-school has exploded in popularity. Last fall, the Washington State Department of Agriculture received over $8 million in farm-to-school funding requests from schools, more than twice the amount of funds available.

The state expanded the program in 2021 using federal COVID-19 funds. Based on how the budget is written, the agriculture department expects that as federal funds run out, legislators will backfill the money with state dollars.

“The kids will eat [school meals] more when they own their own food,” said Shannon Gray, the Port Townsend district’s food services director.

“I’ll put the picture of the garden above anything that’s from the garden,” Gray said about the school’s cafeteria meals. “If they’re not eating it, [I’ll realize] ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot to put the picture up.’”

The rise of farm-to-school

At least half of Washington’s districts are participating in some type of farm-to-school food program, estimates Annette Slonim, WSDA’s farm-to-school lead.

A 2019 survey of schools from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found about 68% of Washington respondents were farm-to-school participants, representing over 1,300 of the state’s schools, which number around 3,000 total.

Over half of the survey’s Washington respondents had been participating in farm-to-school programs for less than three years.

This year, USDA nutrition guidelines are expected to limit added sugar in school meals for the first time. But with farm-to-school, it can be easier to control sugar, sodium and other nutritional content.

Slonim said the pandemic also showed districts that local businesses are less susceptible to disruptions in the global food supply chain.

“[The pandemic] made visible how fragile some parts of the food supply chain are,” Slonim said.

Small businesses and communities benefit, too: Port Townsend, for example, purchased over 1,000 pounds of pork over the last two school years from One Straw Ranch, a local farm owned by Charlotte Frederickson and her husband, Martin Frederickson. The pigs at One Straw Ranch also eat local feed and spend most of their time outside, unlike most factory farm pigs.

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“We feel that having a connection to your food is important environmentally, socially, ethically — across the board,” Charlotte Frederickson said. “To be able to nurture that in the next generation of consumers who will soon be choosing where to buy their food…it makes us feel really good.”

Port Townsend’s program continues to expand. Howe and the students grew about 4,000 pounds of produce last year. This year, he’s hoping for 6,000 pounds — and the kids seem more than happy to help.

“It’s pretty groovy,” said Griffin, the 11-year-old student, looking at the garden.

Nutritional and educational benefits

Cassandra Hayes, nutrition services director at Colville School District, said she’s been surprised with how little some kids know about where their food comes from.

When the district first implemented farm-to-school, Hayes did a carrot showcase, featuring Washington carrots that still had the tops on them. Some of the kids told her they thought carrots came like peeled baby carrots.

Colville School District’s farm-to-school program has only been going on for two years. Two high school sweethearts who graduated from the district now produce the beef for schools there.

Hayes said there’s some trial and error that goes into figuring out what the kids will eat. For example, the high school students help make the ranch dressing from scratch at Colville, and some kids love it — but others “are like, I want my Hidden Valley back,” Hayes said.

But she said it’s worth it and the kids often like the local food better. Last year, Colville bought out its local carrot producer and had to return to its old producer, and the kids came up to Hayes to complain.

“They’re like, ‘What is this?’” Hayes said. “And they held up a carrot. I’m like, ‘That’s a carrot,’ and they’re like, ‘No, this is not those carrots that you gave us…they’re not as sweet.’”

“I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what to tell you, you guys ate them all,’” Hayes said. “And they’re like, ‘Well, tell them to go make some more!’”


The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. We seek to keep you informed about Washington’s most pressing issues, the decisions elected leaders are making, how they are spending tax dollars and who is influencing public policy.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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