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Students of Waukee’s Wee Care daycare program helped plant the garden at the Timberline School.

Some of Iowa’s littlest farmers will have a chance to garden and learn about food production with new grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA awarded three Iowa groups $224,000 to create or expand farm-based learning for students. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, said in a USDA press release that the program will also help schools expand access to healthy foods.

“Not only will this give children more nutritious food options in school, it supports local agriculture economies, while connecting them to the farms and farmers that grow the food we all depend on,” Vilsack said.

In central Iowa, the Waukee Community School District will use its nearly $76,000 grant to continue farm-to-school programming that began several years ago. Already, the district has five gardens — two indoor tower gardens and three that are outdoors — growing carrots, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, green beans and more. The district plans to use the new funds to improve existing programs, plant new gardens and write farm-related curriculum for all grade levels.

“I think the skills that kids are building in these types of programming is critical for their success, even beyond the 13 years that they’re with us in the school system,” said Kaitlyn Scheuermann, registered dietician for the Waukee school district. “You’re teaching kids how to grow food, you’re teaching them about healthy habits. There’s just so many different skills they’re learning even beyond the science standards that we’re teaching them.”

A partnership in Iowa City between the school district, the area education agency and Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development will receive a nearly $50,000 grant to create a farm-based curriculum for marginalized students. Their program will bring hands-on organic farming experiences to underrepresented students and teach a “more just, inclusive food system,” according to a USDA list of grantees.

In Northeast Iowa, Project Rooted and Resource Conservation and Development for Northeast Iowa will receive nearly $100,000 in federal funds for work with the Dubuque Community School District. The group aims to bring healthy snack boxes to students to teach about nutrition, food production and cooking.

Waukee to expand program with new funding

Waukee schools began school farming projects even before receiving the first USDA grant, Scheuermann said, when two teachers at Walnut Hills Elementary School worked with the parent-teacher organization to start a garden in 2015.

The USDA selected Waukee for nearly $50,000 grant in 2018 to allow the district to plan a more robust farming curriculum. The first round of funds went toward the first five gardens and creating an infrastructure for farm-to-school programs.

“Now that we’ve had our farm to school grant, we’ve kind of been able to come alongside as the district and provide some monetary support (and) also just some administrative programming support,” Scheuermann said.

With the additional $76,000, Scheuermann said Waukee schools will further integrate the gardens into curriculum. Beyond just teaching about the life cycle of plants, she said, the outdoor spaces could be used as a quiet place for reading or art classes to gather. The district will also work to create garden programs specifically for students and families learning English as a second language.

So far, produce from the school gardens has been used primarily for education and promotion of the programs — the few raised beds can’t produce enough vegetables to accommodate hundreds of lunches. Instead, Waukee schools have provided “sample-sized” produce for some families through their grab-and-go meal program during the summer.

“It would be great if someday we had enough gardens producing at once that we could … have it actually be part of the meal, but I think we’ve got a ways to go before that’s possible,” Scheuermann said.

USDA awards $224,000 for Iowa farm-to-school programs

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