When it comes to connecting farmers with students and substituting common cafeteria fare with fresh, local produce grown here in the mountains, Jackson County Schools stands at or near the forefront of Western North Carolina school systems.
Jackson County has encouraged students to actively grow lettuce used in the school’s cafeteria, utilized grant money to help introduce elementary school children to fresh vegetables and tapped into nutritional expertise at Western Carolina University and area community colleges. School cafeteria workers have even been taken on field trips to visit the local farms where some of the produce they use comes from.
On a recent weekday at Smoky Mountain High School, students such as Jesse Ammons were busy in the school’s greenhouse testing the waters for the airoponics lettuce they produce. The roots of airoponics lettuce are neither in soil nor water, but are misted with water droplets.
These students are part of an unusual local foods program here in Sylva that involves those in the school’s agriculture classes learning to grow salad for themselves and other students to enjoy in the school’s cafeteria. “Mustang salad,” they call it, in honor of the school’s mascot.
Ammons is busy, but he takes the time to acknowledge briefly that he does enjoy the hands-on experience he receives in this particular class.
“I do like it,” Ammons said before rushing off to complete another assigned task.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said Jim Hill, the schools’ nutritionist. “This has really helped us in ‘branding’ a salad. That means consumption of salad goes up. Just getting the word out that students’ friends have helped grow the salad gets them more interested.”
Agriculture educator Jeremy Jones said there’s been quite a learning curve to growing the lettuce. It required fieldtrips to Haywood Community College, among other things, to see it being done correctly.
The lettuce project at Smoky Mountain High School is in its third year. To serve the lettuce, Jackson County’s school system had to gain OKs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jackson County’s health department and the state Department of Public Instruction.
The students can’t grow enough lettuce to fully supply the demand of fellow students, so Hill has reached out to local farmers to help supply additional homegrown products for the cafeteria. This has helped foster ties into the local agriculture community.
Steven Beltram and wife Becca Nestler, who operate Balsam Gardens, are working with the schools in Jackson County. It hasn’t been easy circumnavigating all the federal and state regulations involved, Beltram said.
“But Jim Hill has a major interest in making it happen,” Beltram said. “So we’re hoping our work with Jackson County Schools can be sort of a pilot project and model for other school systems in the region.”
Beltram and Nestler grow organic vegetables, plus raise and sell small livestock such as pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens off their small, diversified farm. The couple just had their first child and has a special, but understandable, interest in seeing the farm-to-schools program work.
This led them to explore renting greenhouse space at the county’s Green Energy Park. Beltram and Nestler hope to start growing hydroponics lettuce there starting this year and sell the resulting produce to Jackson County Schools.
“That’s an idea we are trying to make happen,” Beltram said.
WCU, ASAP also involved
‘Mustang Salads’ might be the flashy calling card for the local foods program in Jackson County. But there’s much more going on than just that. The schools are also working with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to introduce kids to local food through school gardens, farm field trips and cooking demonstrations. There are “tasting” events at Cullowhee Valley School on a regular basis, where kids sample a variety of vegetables, presented in fun ways, exposing them to tastes they might not otherwise enjoy.
“It’s phenomenal what ASAP is doing here,” Hill said. “We don’t have the staff or financial ability to do and fund the amount of nutrition projects they are now helping us with.”
Specifically, ASAP was awarded a three-year grant of $600,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to integrate farm-to-school course work into the teaching college curriculum at Western Carolina University. The purpose is simple but complex: to get the future teachers of America thinking about how local foods and ultimately, get school kids eating good, locally grown foods.
Cullowhee Valley School, just across the street from WCU, has served as a learning lab for the WCU initiative.
“The students from WCU can come see farm-to-school in action,” said Emily Jackson, program director of ASAP. “They can see first hand children cooking in the classroom, children gardening, taste tests in the cafeteria.”
In addition to the pilot program at Cullowhee Valley, ASAP is working with the Head Start program run by Mountain Projects for pre-K children.
“This is new for us,” said Maggie Cramer, communications coordinator for ASAP, said. “We want to arm (students and educators) with healthy cooking techniques, and how to cook using local ingredients.”