VSDB students, state officials celebrate Farm to School program

  • By NANCY SORRELLS For The News Virginian

  • Oct 2, 2018

STAUNTON — Ellie Hardwick quietly moved her hands over the skin of three sweet potatoes: one was large, the second was smaller and round, and the third was just a tiny tuber. Then her hands explored the twining green sweet potato vines in front of her. Tommy Adams lifted a freshly-cut sweet potato to his nose and inhaled the scent. Treanna Pinnock tasted a piece of baked sweet potato and smiled. Ellie, Tommy, and Treanna, all students at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind, were spending Tuesday morning at the school’s Educational Urban Farm celebrating National Farm to School Month and Virginia Farm to School Week.

Students, faculty, state officials, and the media gathered at the school’s garden just as other students in schools across the nation participated in activities to highlight the interconnectedness of farming, fresh local food, and good nutrition. At VSDB, the morning activities were designed to stimulate the senses including sight and hearing, but also touch, smell, and taste in order to reach all the students who might be blind, deaf, blind and deaf, or blind and/or deaf with multiple disabilities. And, by all accounts on Tuesday morning, the VSDB garden had all senses fully engaged!

Thanks to the VSDB Foundation and the Allegheny Mountain Institute, there has been a VSDB farm since 2014. Not only is the three-acre farm a place for learning and exploration, but most of the produce winds up in the school cafeteria where the students get to select favorite recipes made from the 34 different crops and 6,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables that the garden produces. VSDB students in the CROPS program help with all phases of the project from planting, seeding, and pest control, to harvesting, producing, and eating. Recently a solar oven, which was showcased Tuesday, has been added to the operation.

The site includes one acre of crop production, a raised bed garden, a greenhouse, a sensory garden, and a youth-managed garden business. Students can intern on the farm. Tuesday’s student involvement also included a student-led journalism video crew of Darren Maxwell Jr. and Treanna Pinnock who were there to interview state officials and report on the morning’s activities.

In June of this year, the school was awarded a $76,000 USDA Farm-to-School Expansion Grant to increase the production and classroom part of the program. There were 73 grants awarded nationwide and only two of those went to Virginia schools.

The highlight of the day was a visit from Commissioner Jewel Bronaugh who heads up the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Heidi Hertz, and Trista Grigsby, the Virginia Farm to School Specialist from the Virginia Department of Education.

Running the show for the day were VSDB Farm Manager Katrina Beitz and CROPS instructor Emily Row. Together they told those gathered about the school’s farm program and presented a lesson about the sweet potato and the new solar oven. They then assisted students in preparing sweet potatoes for baking. Finally everyone had the opportunity to taste sweet potato snacks that had been prepared the day before.

“Today is the first day that we are using our solar oven. It is neat to see things come full circle,” noted Row of the sweet potato dish being prepared for baking. “The students have grown, planted, and harvested these sweet potatoes and now they get to eat them,” she added.

Student Jade Nowak, a senior at the school, is involved in a work study program at the garden. “I really enjoy working in the garden. My favorite overall vegetable to grow is the pumpkin,” she signed. “It is a nice feeling to eat something fresh that doesn’t have chemicals like it would from a grocery store.”

In addition to the students at the school experiencing a healthier diet, one exciting spinoff has been that they are taking the ideas and recipes home to their families. VSDB Superintendent Pat Trice said the ripple effect through the students’ families has been amazing. “The students go home and are fixing things at home so that their whole families are developing healthy eating habits. I have parents calling me saying ‘My kid is eating kale chips!’” she said with a laugh.

The contingent from the state also enthused over what they were observing in their week-long journey across the state. Grigsby, who is involved with Virginia’s school farm programs, pointed to the VSDB garden as a standout program. “I just get cold chills watching these students interact. There are all sorts of lessons happening here including those in leadership, nutrition, partnerships, and life skills,” she said.

Commissioner Bronaugh also could not stop praising the program. “I think this is the most amazing place to celebrate agriculture and the education of young people in how to produce fresh food. VSDB is a shining example of how this is done well.”

The buzz in the air Tuesday wasn’t just from the pollinators flitting from plant to plant in the school garden. It also came from the shared enthusiasm of students and adults alike with what was happening on these three acres. Perhaps student Tommy Adams said it best: “I like the farm. It’s nice. I like growing vegetables,” he said while noting that his favorite items from the garden were the cucumbers.

For the trio of state officials, the farm to school tour continues throughout the week, culminating at 10 a.m. on Friday in Harrisonburg with “The Crunch Heard Round the World.” On that day they are encouraging everyone to take a nice big bite of a fresh garden vegetable.