Denver Public Schools takes farm to school to heart. Literally. Since 2012, the district has been converting unused school land into working farms that produce thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables for the district’s schools. The school farms are a true collaborative effort and their benefits extend far beyond school grounds.
Planting the Seeds
Denver Public Schools got involved in farm to school by way of their school gardens. The district had been working with Learning Landscapes, a program at the University of Colorado-Denver, to construct gardens at the district’s schools. While the gardens did contribute some fruits and vegetables to the schools’ salad bars, they were mostly used as educational tools for classroom learning and not for feeding students.
With funding and support from the Colorado Health Foundation, Denver Public Schools conducted a feasibility study, Healthy Kids Healthy Scores. The purpose of the study was to determine whether the district had the capacity to implement its own food system, as well as the capital improvements that would be needed to build and sustain school farms. A test farm was constructed at McGlone Elementary School and a farmer from Agriburbia, a project of the TSR Group in Golden, Colorado, farmed the test plot and collected data for the study. As a result of this study, several additional school farms were constructed at schools throughout the district.
Key Program Elements
The Denver Public Schools farm to school program is driven by four key elements. The first is the land available. School farms are established on larger plots than school gardens since the scale of fruit and vegetable production is much larger. Although the farms are not meant for children and classroom learning, they are typically located near school gardens so children can better connect the produce they touch in the garden to the produce grown and harvested on the farm plot.
The second key element is the farmers, who not only share their extensive agricultural knowledge with the schools, but also collect data from the farm plots to monitor the health of the soil. The third element is the volunteers who give their time throughout the growing season to maintain the farm plots. Organized volunteering events are often held on Saturdays and whole families come out to weed, build trellises, or perform other necessary tasks to keep the farm healthy and productive. The final element is the school’s menu, which drives the selection of fruits and vegetables that are harvested and featured in the meals, as well as included on salad bars. Produce is prepped in the school kitchens; in fact, several schools had to have prep sinks added to accommodate handling the fresh food.
There is also an educational element to Denver Public School’s farm to school program. With support from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the district welcomes chefs into the schools for cooking demonstrations and holds workshops around local food and knowing where your food comes from. In addition, the Denver Green School has developed a curriculum that features food and farm-related educational activities that tie into core subjects such as science, math, and language arts.
Partners Make a Difference
Partners have played a critical role in implementing and maintaining the Denver Public Schools farm to school program. Beyond the farmers and volunteers who give of their time and expertise, other important partners include:
- Denver Public Schools Buildings and Grounds Department. The Buildings and Grounds staff is responsible for mowing, managing the sprinkler systems, and permitting, among other maintenance and administrative duties.
- The Colorado State University Extension Office. The extension office has worked closely with the district to develop food safety protocols for the produce brought into the schools’ cafeterias. They have also assisted the district in drafting proposals in response to Requests for Proposals for farming services.
- Weld County School District. The Weld County School District works with Denver Public Schools to process extra produce so it can be frozen and used out of season. In return, Denver Public Schools offers the Weld County School District a portion of the processed produce so they can enjoy the fruits of the farm.
Learning from Challenges
Farming is hard work and the Denver Public Schools have run into their share of challenges. Weather is a frequent foe. For example, in 2014, an early freeze resulted in a smaller than anticipated yield. However, the district has learned to adapt and find creative ways to use produce that may be less than perfect. Another challenge is the harvest itself. Students do not start school until August, and Denver Public Schools had to work with their farmers to shift their harvest season later than normal to be able to use the produce in the school cafeterias.
Two additional challenges faced by Denver Public Schools are pest control and water use. The district prides itself on not using pesticides on its crops; however, birds have proven to be a frequent nuisance. To address this, the district has employed the use of “scarecrows” to ward off the birds and avoid using chemicals as a deterrent. As for water use, Denver Public Schools uses a drip system to irrigate its farms. The amount of irrigation required is dependent on the season and prevailing conditions. Adjustments are made to accommodate shifts in the weather (e.g., wet, cool springs vs. hot, dry summers).
Denver Public Schools has big dreams for its school farms. In addition to adding more farm plots to the district’s current acreage, Denver Public Schools is exploring the potential of adding a large greenhouse to extend the growing season and protect more of their crops from weather and pests. The district is also interested in adding above ground plots to the mix and is looking into hydroponic farming as an option. Given the current success of the Denver Public Schools farm to school program, one thing is certain: the district’s students can look forward to many more farm fresh meals in the future.
Interview with Theresa Hafner, Executive Director – Enterprise Management (Food Services, Fixed Assets, Warehouse Distribution) Denver Public Schools
Schimke, Ann. “Denver School Farms Help Stock Cafeterias.” Chalkbeat Colorado. August 2, 2013.
Healthy Kids Healthy Scores website