Manatee schools plan garden expansions, farm partnerships for 2016-17

In Kimberley Lough’s agriscience classes at Lincoln Middle School, students pull weeds, plant potatoes, harvest strawberries, care for chickens and cuddle rabbits.

But the students aren’t in Lough’s classroom, they’re outside working the school farm, nestled in the back corner of the school plot. If you listen closely, you can hear the nearby traffic from the DeSoto Bridge in the background. Streets and houses aren’t far away from the garden that Lough is working to make the space a true community garden.

Each year, the 150 students are assigned four small plots of land, and throughout the year they learn the ins and outs of farming, from the physical labor of planting to the latest scientific advancements, including hydroponics.

As the school year winds down, the students are planting peanuts. The legumes will release a specific type of nitrogen into the soil, which will help replenish some of the nutrients lost throughout the year and help prepare the ground for next year’s season.

“Lots of lettuce goes out of here,” Lough says, as she checks the students’ weeded plot of lands before handing over peanuts to plant.

The hands-on science lessons, which also provide a source of food and give the kids a physical outlet during the day, are the kinds of programs the Food and Nutrition Services Department at the Manatee County School District wants to expand for the upcoming academic year. They want to expand existing school farms, add more school farms and strengthen relationships with local farms, like Jones Potato Farm and Mixon Fruit Farms.

School lunches

For the past decade or so, the “Farm to School” concept has been growing in the state of Florida. For the past five years, Manatee County officials have worked to incorporate that concept into Manatee County schools, says Skye Grundy, a dietician.

“Starting every year in about December, we do Fresh from Florida Fridays, a statewide campaign,” she said. “We go ahead and include a Fresh from Florida item every Friday on our school menu.”

Some of those menu items?

Cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, oranges, strawberries, squash and tangerines.

Farms that Manatee schools have purchased food from include Jones Potatoes, Custom Pak/Lipman, Florida Specialties, Marjon, Apio Inc. and JJ Family of Farms, according to officials. Food comes in from Manatee and surrounding counties.

“We try to get as close as possible,” Grundy said.

The district also orders yogurt from a Florida company that gets all its dairy from Florida farms, Grundy said. The produce distributor helps the district buy Florida products for the schools whenever available.

The Farm to School week in April started about four years ago, and helps educate students on what farmers do and what grows in Florida. State posters illustrate the different counties in Florida and what crops they’re known for growing.

“Whatever item was being served that day, they also got some nutrition education and information on the produce item,” she said.

In the upcoming year, the district wants to increase the food products coming from local farmers and more prominently promote the products from those local farmers in the cafeterias.

School farms

Roman Santana, a 11-year-old sixth-grader at Lincoln, finished up his peanut planting early on Wednesday during the class period. His plot of soil was pretty clean of weeds when he started. Roman used the peanut shell as compost matter after he finished planting.

He knows planting the peanuts will help the soil for some of the other products the students want to plant, including his favorite.

“I love planting potatoes,” he said. “Some of mine were very small, some of them were very big.”

Lincoln has one of the largest and most robust school farms in the county, but Lough’s students aren’t alone in their endeavors. At least 14 Manatee County Schools have some type of edible farm on campus, according to officials.

Vanessa Alexander, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, said she’s excited for the “peanut party” once the peanuts take off. Vanessa’s grandfather has a farm so the school farm wasn’t her first time working with the soil, she said, but she thinks it’s important to do it in the schools

“We get to explore the environment and play with the animals,” she said. “It teaches you how to love animals and grow things.”

Lough is working with community members to find a volunteer garden manager, so area residents can come in and work areas of the garden for themselves and reap the produce profits as well.

“We really want to make it a community garden,” she said.

Lough likes to show the students, and the community, that a little ingenuity means farms can crop up anywhere, even in the most urban spaces.

Local partnerships

It’s likely that school kids are eating red potatoes, in some way, shape or form, that were grown by Jones Potato Farm, said Leslie Jones. They just may not know it.

“The awareness piece is the most important part,” she said. “Talking to children about where their food is coming from is fabulous.”

Jones said she’s excited to work closer with the Manatee County School District, given the farm’s existing relationship with Sarasota County Schools. The farm, which provides chip potatoes for companies including Frito-Lays, has five locations in Manatee County. In addition to potatoes, Jones also grows green beans and citrus fruits and has a cattle stock.

The farm recently won an award from the state for using environmentally innovative practices when it comes to growing. Advanced technology is really taking root in farming, Jones said. Sustainability has also become a big goal for farms.

“You don’t realize how much science goes into growing something when it’s this large of an operation. I see it becoming more important as far as being good stewards of the land,” she said.

The district is also looking to grow a partnership with Mixon Fruit Farms. The farm recently partnered with Bashaw Elementary School, district officials said, and they’re hoping to organize more tours of Mixon or bring Mixon farmers into schools more to talk to children.

Regina Thoma, head of the food and nutrition services department, said the department also wants to advertise more to local farmers in the upcoming year, to create and encourage new partnerships.

“We want to let them know we’re out there,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t tend to approach us, so we’re going to reach them.”

Meghin Delaney: 941-745-7081, @MeghinDelaney