Throughout a typical school year, students at Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix participate in a variety of farm-to-school activities, such as growing produce in the school garden, trying local ingredients and talking to famers and chefs.
“We've had chefs come in bringing in local foods like local citrus, or other foods grown in Arizona,” says Balsz Elementary Registered Dietitian Kristi Mollner. “We also have our Traditional Thursdays, where we try to procure not only local foods, but also foods that are traditional foods of the cultures of our diverse student body.”
With the pandemic forcing students to learn remotely, however, the Balsz nutrition team, which is managed by Sodexo, has spent the last year coming up with ways to make sure students can still safely enjoy farm-to-school activities as they learn from home.
Growing a garden at home
To start, the team looked for interactive activities that would get kids away from their computers and tablets.
“I wanted to give [students] something hands-on [that’s] not in front of a screen, something that they could do at home,” says Mollner.
The district received a grant from No Kid Hungry to create 1,000 gardening kits for its students. The kits contained the materials they would need to grow their own basil plants as well as educational resources that covered plants’ need for nutrients, sun and water, and compared those to human needs, Mollner says.
Students have received additional farm-to-school activities through the district’s partnership with the Blue Watermelon Project, a food advocacy program led by local chefs, farmers and other members of the community. Every other month, the program sends garden kits to students, as well as recipes and the ingredients needed to make them.
Over the summer, the district also used additional grant funding to shoot three cooking demonstrations, one of which featured the district’s superintendent, showcasing healthy dishes that represent the cultural background of the student body.
Students learned how to prepare a blue corn mush and three sisters salad (Native American), baked chicken with black eyed peas, tomatoes and onions (African American) and spinach enchiladas with jicama salad (Latin American).
Response to the farm-to-school initiatives from school faculty and staff has been positive, especially from the teachers, Mollner says, and the hope is that they’ll be able to continue the lessons students learned this year into next fall. “Hopefully, all of [the students] will be back on our grounds to where we can get back into the actual garden on the school campus,” she says.