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By Andrew Nowak, Director of Slow Food USA’s National School Garden Program
This post originally appeared on the National Farm to School blog.

A celebration of Farm to School Month would not be complete without children enjoying the fruits (and vegetables!) of their labor in school gardens.

Through the efforts of 150+ local Slow Food USA chapters and thousands of volunteers around the country, school children are getting hands-on experiences in more than just growing and harvesting food. They are learning about preparing, cooking and sharing the “good, clean and fair” bounty from their gardens.

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Our gardening and cooking classes are helping to equip a new generation of eaters with the skills and knowledge to make healthy food choices for greater success in the classroom and in life. Students learn about the role they play in the larger food system of their community and the impact that fresh food can have on the lives of their family and friends.

In Temecula Valley, CA, Slow Food USA volunteers do cooking classes with students to prepare a cultural dish from the fresh produce. Through experiences like this, the students are learning how to handle fresh food so that they can feed themselves, while enjoying deliciously diverse foods with their friends. With these skills, a child does not need to be dependent on anyone else for a snack or even a simple meal, and starts to ask important questions about the “good” aspects of the food they are consuming.

In Long Island, NY, Slow Food East End supports school garden programs that supply school cafeterias with fresh produce for the lunchtime salad bar. These “Garden to Cafeteria” programs teach children how to grow and harvest “clean,” fresh food that is safe to use in school lunches. In some cases, the students participate in the procurement process by handling invoices and selling the fresh produce to the food service operation, which raises money to support their garden program. Students learn how to participate in the food supply chain and begin to understand the complexities of the large-scale food system.

Students in Colorado, as part of Slow Food Denver’s “Seed-To-Table” program, use the garden produce to set up Youth Farmers Markets on school grounds. Often situated in declared food deserts, these markets allow children to sell fresh fruits and vegetables to the surrounding community. The students handle all aspects of the markets, including promotion, harvesting, sales and cleanup. Each week, they see some of the same people returning to the market for the fresh produce, and begin to appreciate the value that the community places on healthy food.

Collaboration between Slow Food Charlotte (NC) and Friendship Gardens gives school gardens the opportunity to supply fresh produce to the local “Meals-on-Wheels” program. Their fruits and vegetables are used in the daily preparation of healthy meals for homebound ill and low-income households. This teaches children about the issues of hunger and food justice in their local community, reinforcing the value of “fair” access to fresh food for all.

Every October, as we gather to celebrate Farm to School Month, it is encouraging to see the tremendous progress in the transformation of school food culture. We are seeing great progress from the activities in school gardens and classrooms to include fresh, local food in the cafeterias – and, especially, to establish relationships between the local producers and the school community.

At the heart of all of these programs is the involvement of the children as active participants in the food systems that bring nourishing food to their lunch trays and to their dinner plates at home. Slow Food USA, our chapters, and thousands of dedicated volunteers believe that kids who know and value where food comes from will become the next generation of advocates for good, clean and fair food for all. And that it all starts in the school garden.