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Children celebrate with pure delight each time they pluck a sun-warmed strawberry or dig up a purple carrot and their faces express complete joy upon tasting these flavors of nature. Students also exude a sense of accomplishment knowing that their efforts in the gardens have resulted in such gastronomic gifts. School gardens offer these moments of culinary discovery in ways that no other time of the school day can offer.

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Until now. There has been a recent surge in efforts in the cafeteria that have resulted in the opportunity for taste education during lunchtime. Food service directors are seeking out fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms. School districts have added produce wash sinks and increased refrigeration to properly wash and store this whole, raw produce. Kitchen staff is being trained on how to prepare this fresh food and serve it on new salad bars and in menu items that look more like home cooking than fast food.

School gardens give students a chance to learn firsthand where their food comes from. To achieve this, food service directors have worked with community partners and local health departments to develop food safety protocols for the safe growing and harvesting of school garden produce. Where once the idea of student-grown food being used for school meals was dismissed quickly, districts across the country are embracing the opportunity to help the students connect the dots in their local food system. Government agencies like the USDA and county health departments promote these programs as contributing to positive outcomes in public health. And in a few cases, directors are paying for the school garden produce, providing much needed revenue for the school gardens to cover costs of maintaining these outdoor classrooms.

So why is it important for the students to see their school garden produce served fresh on the salad bar? Besides the obvious nutritional benefits of eating fresh produce that has traveled only 100 feet from garden to plate, what educational opportunities are unique to the experience of participating in the food chain that supplies school cafeterias? A common research finding states that it takes about 8-16 exposures to a new food before a child will freely choose that food and willingly consume it. If we extend the exposures to the new food all the way to planting a seed in a small pot in the classroom, transplanting the seedling into a larger pot and then planting the new plant in the garden, the student is well on a path of feeling comfortable with a new food. When we add opportunities of harvesting the fresh food, the students are so eager to finally have the chance to taste this new food that they have nourished throughout its life. There is rarely the concern that they have never tried this food before but rather “when is it ready for me to eat?”

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The second benefit of Garden to Cafeteria programs is the students’ association of school garden produce with increased school efforts to provide healthy, nutritious meals. Imagine what the students think when they see their garden produce on the salad bar. It does not take a great leap of faith for the students to figure out that the health benefits of the eating school garden veggies and meals from the cafeteria are one in the same. Now add the use of school garden produce in the classroom for snacks and celebrations, and we have the opportunity to immerse the children in a school food culture that celebrates healthy and delicious food.

Many children that participate in school garden programs live in food desert communities, where families struggle to find fresh options for their meals at home. Children suffer higher rates of obesity, diet-related disease, and nutritional deficits in these communities and families are forced to accept food options that don’t support high standards of community health. School garden programs offer these children the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence that fresh produce is important for their long-term health. School meals are often the best source of nutrition these children will get in a day and, when they see that the food they are growing in the garden is served from the school kitchen, students have the opportunity to surmount the shortcomings of their surroundings.

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The next time you see a group of students in the school garden planting seeds or harvesting tomatoes, don’t be quick to dismiss these activities as a form of unstructured learning. When your child asks for lunch money because they want to go through the salad bar, try not to bring up old memories of school meals being based on processed foods and canned fruit with heavy syrup. Embrace your child’s desire to be part of an exciting new school food culture where learning about healthy food surrounds them all day in the classroom, cafeteria and school garden.

As a recipient of a Whole Kids Foundation Healthy Kids Innovation Grant, Slow Food USA is thrilled to announce our plans to create a Garden to Cafeteria Toolkit. This GTC toolkit will enable us to assist school districts across the country develop their own food safety protocols.

-Andrew Nowak, School Garden Specialist, Slow Food USA