The gardens around the various sites of the school district are more than just gardens, they’re classrooms. Although their health — like any other garden — fluctuates, Winters Farm to School helps keep them alive to teach students about the importance of nutritious foods and agriculture.
Anybody who’s dabbled in gardening can tell you what a challenge it is. From slug attacks to bad weather to simply not having enough time to devote the TLC, gardening — and farming — are difficult enterprises in which to partake.
Regardless of the challenges, Winters Farm to School is on a mission to raise funds to provide fresh produce for the district’s food programs, educate children on the benefits of healthy eating habits while also reconnecting them to the agricultural roots of Winters.
“We got a grant from UC Davis to see if schools could increase procurement of farm direct veggies for school meals. So suddenly we had this money and the idea of starting something that’d go away in three years horrified me,” said Cathleen Olsen, Director of Food Service and Winters Farm to School board member. “We had a goal with our grant partners of not just buying veggies and teaching kids to eat them, but to not have that grant go away. My thinking was to start a farm to school program and we officially launched at Wolfskill Ranch and have had annual fund raisers.”
The gardens at Shirley Rominger Intermediate School are weed-ridden due to COVID shutdowns and have been non-operational due to needing to be relocated following the construction of a three-classsroom modulate building over the summer. They’re currently in a narrow space between buildings, but Olsen is hopeful they’ll find a spot with more sunshine.
With COVID restrictions loosening, the changes will allow the main labor force of volunteers to return to school campuses. According to Olsen, more helping hands are all that’s needed to officially get the Rominger school gardens back on track.
Meanwhile, the Waggoner Elementary gardens continue to be the benchmark for district gardens, as they are thriving and stoking student excitement to learn and enjoy the fruits — and veggies — of their labor.
“The gardens help reconnect kids to the land and their agricultural heritage. They also help them understand everything that goes into gardening and to see what they pick served at school is really important too,” said Olsen. “They learn about science, math and health — there’s just so many different lessons kids can learn with the garden.”
Olsen also lauds the farm maintained near the Winter High School ag site. To her, everything produced there and the other gardens helps feed the ravenous appetites of the school district’s students as they go through around 1,000 pounds of oranges and 40-50 cases of lettuce every week.
While the excitement for students continues to sprout, there’s plenty about the gardening process that cultivates Olsen’s excitement as well.
“My favorite part is definitely working with the kids. I love encouraging them to eat and try new things,” said Olsen. “It’s about extending the classroom in a safe way and it’s really nice to have the kids outdoors more, especially during COVID.”
Prior to the pandemic shutdown, Winters Farm to School board members and volunteers work in the gardens regularly with students. As the school district navigated through COVID guidelines, volunteers had not been allowed to help out for a while. But as restrictions have changed, so has the ability for volunteers to help out again.
Olsen is looking for community volunteers to help keep the gardens operational. While students enjoy getting their hands in the dirt, it’s the efforts of volunteers that help keep them thriving.
For more information, one can visit wintersfarmtoschool.com.