- Author: Deborah Schnur
I can't believe I've been working part-time as the UCCE San Bernardino Environmental Education Coordinator for six months already! As the saying goes, “time flies when you're having fun”. I was having so much fun that I started a second part-time position as the Farm to School Program Assistant for the Upland Unified School District (UUSD) at the end of January. Through these two positions, I hope to build stronger partnerships between UCCE and local schools.
In this month's blog, I want to introduce you to the UUSD Farm to School Program. The program is part of the Nutrition Services Department. Cassidy Furnari, the Program Manager, has been working with UUSD for over three years during which she's made tremendous progress building school gardens and providing hands-on learning opportunities. The district has 14 schools, 11 of which have gardens for the students. By the end of this school year, all schools will have gardens.
Cassidy started as an intern when she was completing her Master of Science degree in Regenerative Studies at Cal Poly Pomona. I first became acquainted with Cassidy when I served with FoodCorps at Phelan Elementary and two members of my cohort served at Upland schools. UUSD still supports two FoodCorps service members.
Rather than using a cookie-cutter approach, Cassidy aims to customize each school garden to match the school community and the school's goals and resources. Before doing anything else, she gets to know the entire school community—the administrators, staff, teachers, students, and parents—because she believes the most successful gardens come from community ideas. The more the community is included in the garden, the more sustainable it will be. Both community volunteers and the UUSD Maintenance and Operations Team are instrumental in building the gardens and bringing them to life.
Once the garden is up and running, the Farm to School Program grows organic seasonal produce for students and their families. All UUSD schools are registered as community food producers; so everything grown in the gardens can be served to students in the cafeterias. Cassidy is most excited about the cafeteria taste tests because they help students connect with the food being grown. One example was an eggplant dip taste test at Upland High School; the eggplant, garlic, onion, basil, and tomatoes used to make the dip were all grown on site. At Foothill Knolls STEM Academy, garden basil was turned into pesto for a taste test. Cassidy wants to show the students that their opinion matters and will be reflected in the cafeteria menu. Before the COVID pandemic, the cafeteria staff also added school-grown produce such as broccoli, radishes, carrots, and citrus to the salad bar. When schools shut down during COVID, produce bags containing lettuce, cabbage, herbs, citrus, and other fruits and vegetables were distributed to school families.
The Farm to School Program also provides a space for community and family education and engagement. Social media posts on YouTube and Instagram include cooking demonstrations and a recap of the week's activities. The program plans to make lessons and curriculum available to the school community through its website. In partnership with UUSD Support Services, the program will offer a stress management and eating course in the next month.
Planning for sustainability is critical to the continued success of Upland's Farm to School Program. This is accomplished by giving students and teachers agency over garden spaces and holding volunteer days to connect school communities with their gardens. The longer term plan is to train interested teachers to take care of the gardens and integrate them into their lessons. Garden sites are built for sustainability by completely removing the sod, laying down landscape fabric and substrate such as decomposed granite, and adding an extra layer of fabric underneath the garden beds.
Another aspect of sustainability is funding. Over the years, Cassidy has become a prolific grant writer. Thanks to her efforts, the UUSD Farm to School Program has received grants from the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture), Sprouts, Whole Foods, Lowe's, Action for Healthy Kids, Walmart, and California Fertilizer Foundation.
I'm proud to be associated with such a strong and vibrant Farm to School Program and believe it's the perfect complement to my work at UCCE. I look forward to spending sunny days in school gardens with curious and energetic students. This is what makes my heart sing. I hope you too find your happy place in the garden!