Thetford Elementary School’s Food Loop

In the early winter of 2008 I approached Joette Hayashigawa, the school nurse at Thetford Elementary School, and offered to help out with the garden I heard they had started the year before. I had just taken the job of Education Coordinator and was looking build a Farm to School Program with the farm. At that point, the school had 7 raised beds, the experience of one chaotic but successful growing season, and a prayer to go forward but no plan. Joette was super excited for my help, and I was up for the challenge. Together, with the help of our community, we have grown a nutritious and beautiful edible schoolyard complete with an onsite composting system. We call it our Food Loop.

In our first year we worked to gain the support of the teachers by designing gardens that could be used as learning tools for K-2: A Three Sister’s Garden, a Pollinator Garden, and a Rainbow Sensory Garden. The K-2 students start seeds in the classroom, plant the gardens in Spring, and harvest the gardens in Fall. In Spring and Fall, I visit the gardens and classrooms to work with students to help integrate the lessons, and the students get to visit the farm to extend those lessons to a broader scale. As a part of studying soil, the younger grades began collecting food scraps with the intent of composting them at school. School composting can be tricky. The scraps ended up going to feed chickens, not a bad thing, but the system for collecting had now been established and a serious interest in composting was born.

This entire system went very well for 2 years. So well that it became clear that we needed to expand to include everyone! Students and teachers in grades 3-6 were feeling left out, and as all the students began liking fresh carrots and crispy kale, the cafeteria was left wishing for more fresh food for their lunch program! The entire community began to notice and appreciate the gardens, and so grew an interest in improving more outdoor spaces at the school; a parent and teacher Outdoor Spaces Committee was formed! After surveying the students, the committee identified some areas to improve outdoor spaces at school: a winter skating rink, an outdoor reading room, expanded gardens, and an onsite composting system.

In 2010, six new garden beds were constructed in the adjacent courtyard, and an outdoor reading room was centered in the gardens. Vermont-based Highfields Center for Composting was hired to come in and work with the school to design and implement an onsite composting system, completed in 2011. The six new beds are now the student Theme Gardens, and the original beds are the School Lunch beds. Each Spring the school food service director chooses the most useful vegetables to grow in those gardens to supplement the school lunch program, and new Taste Test Program. In 2012, we added a peach tree, some blueberry bushes, and some low-bush cranberries. In 2013 we have plans to add raspberries and more fruit trees.

Our Food Loop now includes every grade at TES! K-2 students manage the gardens, Grade 3 will be our fruit and berry committee, Grade 4 collects the compost, Grade 5 manages the compost bins, Grade 6 conducts monthly taste tests in the cafeteria for all students and collates the data to provide feedback to the Food Loop. This month the taste test was to determine which varieties of antique apple trees we should plant at school in the coming year.

I help to manage the gardens, but all the rest is the result of many hands and many minds working together to improve the educational experience of our kids. Each year, many Thetford businesses and parents donate their time, skills, plants, seeds, and soil. The school uses grant money to pay a school faculty member for Summer garden maintenance, and to pay the farm for at least some of the time I give to the school each year. Every year more parents join our School Garden Committee to help out with projects, student visits, and garden maintenance. The students love being involved, the teachers love their enthusiasm about eating well, and I just love my job! The best reward ever is when a parent says to me “My kid loves kale and I have you to thank! Now what do I do with it?”.

Did I say how much I love my job?

If you’d like to get involved in the Thetford Elementary School Garden Committee, or if you’d like a tour of the gardens, contact Cat.

Classrooms visits enrich the science curriculum. Here students examine flowers and insects with Cat.

Students plant and maintain the gardens in spring.

Chart displaying the winning apple varieties in the November 2012 taste test. Pommegris and Esopus Spitzenburg tied!

6th Graders help 2nd Graders through the taste test line in the school cafeteria at lunch time.

TES students pose for a picture with their new seedlings on their Spring field trip to Cedar Circle Farm.

The schoolyard gardens: School Lunch Beds (left side), outdoor reading room, blueberry patch and Theme Gardens (center) and the front corner of the compost bins (far right).

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