As seen on Acres USA Magazine

BY ALLIE HYMAS

In her 2019 deep-dive into school lunch policy, The Labor of Lunch, assistant professor of Civil Society and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Jennifer E. Gaddis argues that attempts to serve up healthier, more sustainable food in schools have fallen short.

“High profile champions like Michelle Obama, Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver have helped to popularize school gardens and from-scratch lunches,” Gaddis writes, but these upgrades often lack pragmatic value to the school’s food program. Some critics even call Waters’ Edible Schoolyard initiative an expensive waste of time in communities where gardening is a luxury activity: a progressive policymakers’ “‘let them eat tarte tatin’ approach,” as Caitlin Flannagan comments.

What are kids actually learning about the world when they tend kale in the morning and at noon eat frozen chicken fingers served by workers paid poverty wages?

Gaddis argues that in order to truly assess the value delivered by child nutrition programs, institutions must quantify care as an asset: both human care and earth care. One such institution is IDEA Public Schools, a non-profit corporation running an expanding list of 60 charter schools in Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

“People get this idea that a school garden is just a nice thing to have,” says Hernan Colmenero, director at IDEA Farms, “but it can become a huge, impactful initiative when it’s done well and incorporates various partners within the school district and the community.”

Under Colmenero’s leadership, one campus garden has grown into nine farms on and off school grounds. Each farm is more than just an extracurricular activity: it supplies IDEA cafeterias with produce grown using regenerative practices.

A CLASSROOM THAT FEEDS

With plans to enroll 100,000 students in 2022, IDEA claims to be the fastest growing charter school network in the United States. The company began in 1998 in Donna, Texas, by two Teach for America alums, JoAnn Gama and Tom Torkelson, with an intention to address challenges in underserved communities. That mission goes deeper than just education strategy: IDEA has launched community health initiatives like Healthy Kids Here and IDEA Farms to address chronic illnesses associated with poor nutrition. “Underserved communities and food deserts often go hand in hand,” Colmenero says. “Out of the sixty schools we have, maybe five of them are not in a food desert.”

The first garden on an IDEA campus was small, “and like many other school gardens,” Colmenero recounts, “it was planted by an excited teacher, and almost stopped from a lack of funding and direction.” Colmenero is surprised the garden didn’t disappear altogether before it was adopted under the IDEA’s Child Nutrition Program in 2015. “That was when we were able to move away from dependency on grants and integrate what we were growing with the needs of the cafeteria. We standardized our operation in a way that we can replicate.”

In the 2020-2021 school year, IDEA Farms grew 81,930 pounds of produce served to students, a total of 287,983 meal servings over the last four years.

The nutrition team at IDEA sources and designs the menu according to state and federal mandates, which Colmenero says is no easy task, but the organization leans heavily toward local sourcing and seasonal eating. “With locations in Texas, Louisiana and Florida, there are many different ethnicities and subcultures; we try to regionalize our menus.”

After working with the nutrition team to design a menu, Colmenero and the farm team come up with a growing plan for the season to harvest the right quantities of food when they need it.
“We have an initiative called Harvest of the Month where what we’re harvesting for that month in that region is featured.” Eye-catching signs in the cafeteria provide information about the vegetable of the month, while the lunch line offers three different recipes to entice the skeptics. “Even though they have seen it prepared one way and not liked it, they can experience it a different way and that really opens up their palate.”

Eggplant has surprised many IDEA students. “Having it sautéed, roasted and made into babaganoush really caught students’ interest. Many of them had never seen an eggplant.” Colmenero says some who had previously disliked the typical preparation of eggplant, roasted in slices, found that they liked it a different way.

Art, too, plays a role in the students’ synthesis of their learning on the farm, “so students have a voice to tell their stories, not only learning on the farm but also being able to reflect on themselves and talk about their experience — what agriculture [and] food insecurity mean to them.”

FROM GARDEN TO COALITION

Many farm-to-school programs rely solely on grants and community volunteerism. IDEA Farms, however, have the unique advantage of both the backing of an institution and the flexibility of being homegrown within the school system.

This has allowed IDEA to standardize their farms. “We launch two new farms every year and they’re opened up in the same way: a core set of vegetables grown and a regional set,” Colmenero says. “We hire people who know how to grow food but then we teach them our methods of succession planning and program replication.”

In many communities there remains a stigma that agriculture is limited to fieldwork, and Colmenero wants to expand that image and show kids the possibilities. “My parents didn’t want me to get into agriculture at first because they came from agriculture,” he says. Colmenero points out that the same system churning out bags of frozen chicken fingers has made it financially precarious to work in agriculture. And at its root? Stolen labor.

“Racism and cheap labor go together,” Colmenero says, “and now it’s hard to pay what food is worth.”
Colmenero says that the farms’ model works because the institution puts a high value both on the experiential learning and the sustainability component. “If it was just our job to supply the food, it probably wouldn’t be the most cost effective,” he says, “but we’re providing an outdoor classroom.”

While IDEA Public Charter doesn’t release hard numbers for their operations, their tremendous success rate and addition of new campuses every year would suggest that paying into a regenerative system is working. Kids aren’t just learning how to grow a garden, they’re participating in a system in which the farmers are paid to do right by the land.

“The impact we’re having the most will be felt five to ten years from now. We’re not expecting everyone to go into agriculture, but we’re expecting our kids to grow up being more conscious citizens with a knowledge of what agriculture is and can be.”

What inefficiencies might exist through using students on the production end often turns into educational opportunities. Colmenero remembers, “We were showing a group of first graders which plants to weed, and a student rips out a giant tomato plant. He says, ‘Look, I got a big one!’” Rather than scold the student, Colmenero recalls the humor and bonding used to show him the correct way to weed the patch. “We’ve been blessed by the huge push for socio-emotional learning in school, and farms are a great platform for that.”

REGENERATIVE FOCUS

Colmenero strongly believes that organic farming, without use of pesticides and fertilizers, is particularly critical for creating a safe setting for kids. “If you have huge monocropped conventional fields with harsh chemicals, it’s a lot harder to get kids out there safely.”

IDEA Farms defines regenerative agriculture as both an environmental and human health endeavor. “We’re not certified organic but we do use organic practices and GAP Harmonized Food Safety Standards, so it’s extremely high-quality produce made available to students at no cost to them.”
The environmental goal is “healing the soil to its most productive capacity and to do that sustainably.”

Colmenero and his team of lead farmers at each site teach kids composting, cover cropping, low tillage, tarping to kill weeds, applying fish emulsions and compost tea, and employing garlic oil and soap for pest control. During the summer, a healthy cover crop sits atop the farms’ acreage, protecting the soil during the hottest part of the Texas growing season.

All this work is aimed both at teaching kids the techniques as well as reinforcing an emphasis on increasing biodiversity and even carbon sequestration.

As a philosophy and art student, macro-level problem solving drew Colmenero into agriculture, but thinkers like Wendall Berry and Rudolph Steiner helped him examine farming beyond just conventional methods.

“I found that agriculture was getting blamed for a lot of social ills: pollution, nutritional deficiencies, climate change and a host of other public health issues,” he says. “Contrast that with some countries practicing agriculture in such a way that has truly been sustainable. Wine grape growers in Italy, Hawai’ian farmers practicing traditional techniques, farmers in Mexico repeating the same practices for thousands of years without depleting the soil.”

Curiosity pushed Colmenero into a life-long pursuit of these regenerative techniques, but it’s the impact that brought him to head up the IDEA Public Schools’ farm program. “The opportunity came up and I jumped on it because I was interested in what regenerative agriculture could do for society as a whole.” Currently, Colmenero is studying Public Health at the University of Texas and is a USDA Kika de La Garza Fellow.

“I never set out to be the one starting farms all over the country,” Colmenero says with a laugh, “but with IDEA public schools I get to do that.”

REPLICATING GOOD IDEAS

IDEA’s model is designed to be highly replicable, and the farms are no exception. Colmenero wants to see a farm at every school, and he welcomes school administrators or volunteers considering a similar program to reach out to him personally. “Don’t underestimate the power and influence a farm-to-school program can have on the local public health, ecology and learning,” he says.

Partnerships are the backbone to the success of any farm-to-school initiative. “Other school districts are partner number one,” he says. IDEA has collaborated with several other districts, garnering more involvement in farm-to-school and sharing tools for grant writing and program development.
Recently, Colmenero participated with another school in presenting their farm to school models in Texas’ Education Service Center; he recommends getting involved in whatever collaboration network is available in your state in order to amplify your message and best practices.

“Universities are a third partner I would highly recommend, because it was through cover crop research that we connected with graduate students and had one join us after she finished her master’s thesis. We were able to really hone our cover crop practices so we know exactly when the roots are nodulating, fixing nitrogen, and when they’re about to bud.”

Finally, engaging the neighborhood, parents and volunteers is critical to a school farm’s success. “Try to involve the community as much as possible because people want to help.”

One of the farms on an IDEA campus allocated a corner plot to the memory of a student who passed away. “One of the parents built a really nice bench and [the students] held a memorial there,” Colmenero says.

Engaging the community can also make or break a farm, like IDEA’s first San Antonio farm, Monterey Park, which happened to be a short walk from the school and in a less secure neighborhood. Colmenero recalls, “Someone broke into the shipping container, this big hunk of metal sitting on the farm, and they stole our tractor. Things kept walking away until the farmer started interacting with the residents in the neighborhood.” As the site farmer became a familiar face, he began to get dinner invitations. “Now the residents are watchful of the farm, they understand what the garden is for and that it serves their kids. One of the neighbors mows the farm’s lawn on the weekends. It’s beautiful, but sometimes it takes some dialogue to begin to understand one another in a community.”

REGENERATION STARTS WITH LUNCH

IDEA Public Schools hasn’t always had a perfect track record; just this May, the board fired the network’s CEO for misuse of funds. Still, the organization is moving forward, expanding its locations in new states, and opening two new farms a year.

“A better school-lunch program isn’t a silver bullet for achieving food justice,” writes Gaddis, “but it is an ideal place to begin making a national commitment toward healthy and sustainable diets that support community well-being.”

Colmenero agrees, “There are some major problems that small, sustainable agriculture can solve; we just need more of it and more people embarking on it.

“You can imagine how many meals are being served in every cafeteria at every school in just one city. Now suppose that small, sustainable agriculture was a part of that — now you’re punching above your own weight.”