When the news broke that FoodCorps was pulling out of all its Montana sites at the end of the summer, there was immediate concern over whether the food education and farm-to-school programs overseen by FoodCorps would remain viable.
At the farmers market each week, local residents would visit the Farm Hands Nourish the Flathead (FHNF) booth to express their concerns in person. Even school administrators said they were worried about the future of the Wildcat school garden at Columbia Falls Junior High, which has long served as a teaching opportunity for students.
“Sometimes those sites are unable to continue and farm-to-school education drops off, as does local procurement,” said Whitney Pratt, educational coordinator for FHNF. “We did not want that to happen, so we’ve taken on a huge new program.”
Farm Hands is a nonprofit aimed at working toward “ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable” ways of growing food and making it accessible to everyone in the valley. Its programming includes a seed distribution service, a partnership with FAST Blackfeet, an organization on the reservation that actively works on food access and nutritional education, and managing local community gardens such as the Planetree Healing Garden at the Logan Health hospital in Whitefish.
Stepping into the void left in Columbia Falls, which hosted several AmeriCorps FoodCorps members over the years, Farm Hands took over management of the Wildcat garden as well as the farm-to-school program district wide.
“It’s possible that within three years we’ll be very farm-to-school oriented as an organization,” Pratt said.
Discussions with the school district began last December – before the national FoodCorps program announced its intention to leave Montana, to make the programs in the district less reliant on the federal program.
A notice was filed in April that Farmhands would maintain the Wildcat garden going forward, though it remains school property and utilizes school resources.
For the six weeks each fall and spring that the garden is available during the school year, teachers in the elementary school and junior high can bring their classes out to the garden for a 45-minute lesson.
“We start the kids out with a scavenger hunt and then progress from there,” Pratt said. “They learn about all things garden — how to have your own at home, how to plant and harvest and all about compost and decomposers and pollinators.
“All students in the Columbia Falls district can spend time in the garden and learn where their food comes from.”
In addition to the educational component provided by the garden itself, Farm Hands offers Fresh Snack Fridays, a program that gives all students a fruit or vegetable snack that’s locally sourced, and through a USDA Farm to School Grant the nonprofit is able to offer more in-school nutritional education opportunities.
Heather Gilchrist, a health enhancement teacher at Columbia Falls Junior High has been involved with the garden since it’s inception in 2013, but said she’s seen a marked improvement in the level of interest and care at the Wildcat garden since Farm Hands, and “Farmer Whitney” took over this year.
Gilchrist has been able to add an elective class, Fitness for Life, to the CFJH curriculum this fall, and the Wildcat Garden has become a major focus of the class. Twice a week the students meet Pratt at the garden for activities and lessons.
“I didn’t really know how it would be received, but the students are excited every week,” Gilchrist said. “They’ve gained ownership over the garden beds, weeding them, watching the produce grow and harvesting them. Next week they’ll learn to make salsa using the harvested vegetables.”
In addition, Gilchrist has seen an immediate increase in interpersonal communication between her students as they compare gardens and the various foods they plant.
“One young lady wants to taste and try everything we grow, and that’s a great experience because everything tastes so much better straight from the garden,” Gilchrist said. “Some kiddos didn’t know where their food came from or what the plants look like that food originates from.”
Next year, Pratt is planning to add a job-training aspect to the programming lineup by offering garden apprenticeships to give students hands-on opportunities to harvest produce over the summer and sell it at the farmers market.
“We want to make sure kids keep getting the food education that’s been happening for so long,” Pratt said. “They need to have access to a garden to make sure they know carrots grow in the ground.”
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