Every School Should Have a Farm to Feed Its Students Every School Should Have a Farm to Feed Its Students

Every School Should Have a Farm to Feed Its Students

by Courtney Leeds

December 8, 2013

I have always loved working with my hands. It is only now, after five years of farming that I realize I chose to farm as a way to work with my hands every day.

It started in San Francisco, where I worked as an apprentice at Little City Gardens and quickly fell in love with the meditative repetition of working the soil, planting, weeding, repeating. I also fell in love with doing work with a purpose, nourishing others and myself. After eight years in San Francisco, I left to work on rural farms in Oregon and abroad. Those experiences inspired me to make my way as a farmer. After a yearlong apprenticeship at Zenger Farm in Portland, Oregon, I jumped at the chance to start an urban farm with another apprentice, Justin Davidson.

When we first visited the potential site at Candy Lane Elementary in Milwaukie, we found three-quarters of an acre of the schoolyard that had already been cultivated by farmers, along with a high-tunnel, greenhouse, a shed, and 33 raised beds. It was too good to be true! As we started formulating our vision, it became clear that this could be so much more than an urban farm. We could market the produce we grow back to the school cafeteria—building upon the farm-to-institution movement—and we could educate the school children about where food comes from and how to grow it, increasing their positive attitudes about fruits and vegetables and their likelihood of making healthy eating choices. Obesity rates are at all-time high and yet kids are going hungry; there’s never been a greater need for an organization that can provide fresh produce to kids and encourage them to think positively about fruits and vegetables. A land-use agreement was signed that gave us free use of the land and water in exchange for educational services. And that’s how Schoolyard Farms was born in the early months of 2012.

Our vision for Schoolyard Farms was, and still is, to build farms on every schoolyard that can feed their cafeterias. Unlike Edible Schoolyard and FoodCorps—two admirable organizations that help schools build and maintain school gardens with the support of grant funding and donations—Schoolyard Farms is using a social enterprise model. This will help us generate profit by marketing the produce and hosting fee-for-service programs like a summer camp. We are currently performing a pilot at Candy Lane Elementary, which cultivates a large portion of the schoolyard so we can grow enough food to sell back to the cafeteria and to CSA members, generating revenue to support the school farm. The modern approach we are using is designed to build sustainable school farms, which can be replicated at other schools. 

In the last two years, building our little nonprofit with a huge vision from the ground up has been both extremely trying and rewarding. We have accomplished so much on a shoestring budget. Since March of 2012, we have harvested more than 3,000 pounds of produce and sold it to 25 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, SNAP recipients, farmers’ markets and Head Start in Clackamas County. We have also engaged more than 300 students in weekly garden-based education; piloted a farm-based summer camp and after-school cooking classes; built partnerships with like-minded organizations, including Green Corps and Clackamas County Soil and Water Conservation District; and recruited community leaders to serve on our Board of Directors. Still, all of those accomplishments have not come without their trials. 

Starting a nonprofit from scratch involves a lot more than you might think. In addition to all the systems that need to be developed to start any business, nonprofits need to build a Board of Directors, write bylaws, go through the 501(c)(3) application process, and build community involvement and buy-in. You need to complete these steps before you can receive any major grant or foundation funding. After two years, we have started and completed many of these steps, but building community involvement and buy-in is a slow process. When we inherited this site, some of the neighbors felt strongly that we shouldn’t be there; some didn’t see the need or the benefit of a school farm and others were put off after the previous farmers left the farm mid-season without removing their crops, blighting the neighborhood with a fallow, overgrown field. Building trust within a community takes time and perseverance. I’m pleased to say we have gained the trust of many of the neighbors and built synergistic relationships with teachers, students, and parents. 

We have laid the groundwork for a model that can expand to every schoolyard. You can help us achieve this vision by contributing to our Donation page . We are raising funds for needed infrastructure at our Candy Lane farm and to pay for our 501(c)(3) filing fees. With these funds, we can grow into a sustainable organization that can help build farms on every schoolyard and provide fresh produce for cafeterias.

This project is part of GOOD's series Push for Good—our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress.

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Every School Should Have a Farm to Feed Its Students