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Guilford Farm to School thrives on community partnership

What does it take to make a successful Farm to School program? At Guilford Central School (GCS), a big part of the answer is community partners.

“The community support that we see at Guilford Central School is amazing. From the dedicated parents on the Leadership Council to parents who donate mulch for our blueberry plants and excavator time to site a shed, it’s really inspiring to see. Our families and community members clearly value the outdoor experiences that our students are having, and they give a lot to support our programming. Our Farm to School and Nature-Based Education programs are thriving and couldn’t have gotten to this point without community involvement,” said Sarah Rosow, the Farm to School Program Coordinator at GCS.

School principal, John Gagnon, agrees, “the success that we have experienced at GCS is due to the remarkable contributions and efforts of our community partners.” He also points to the deeper connection the community has, “capital improvements to our campus and professional development for our staff in best practices in nature-based learning demonstrate the direct result  of the support that our parents, community and local non-profit organizations have provided.”

Guilford Central School is a regional leader in Farm to School—its over 7-year-old program is a shining example of how Farm to School can grow well-grounded students and connect communities. Before the pandemic, students used school-grown vegetables for taste tests highlighting local dishes for the school to try before adding them to the cafeteria's menu. GCS hosted the Holiday Market, where each grade made garden-based crafts and food items to sell to the community. The staff’s gardening and nutrition education experience meant that they were ready to move learning outdoors and get creative about cooking lessons when the pandemic hit.

“We love to cook in Pre-K and try to do at least one cooking project every week. In pre-COVID times we would prep our ingredients inside and then bring them outside to cook over the fire,” reflects Pre-K teacher Emma Hallowell. “This year, we found that preparing food outside was challenging during the cold winter months—those little fingers! But now that it’s spring, we simply set up a cooking station in our outdoor classroom and are having a great time cooking over the fire again.”

The past year has brought communities together in mutual aid and collaboration. This is no exception at Guilford, where countless community partnerships help elevate and grow the gardens, classroom lessons, and nutrition education.

The gardens continue to grow throughout the school campus, creating new learning spaces for classes and more produce for students to try. The Guilford FTS Program purchased two new raised beds built by Three Trees. Soil donated by Windham Solid Waste Management District (WSWMD) and D&E Tree Company filled the beds. Apple trees donated by Scott Farm and plants from Walker Farm and Lilac Ridge Farm will help fill all this new growing space. More trees, berries, and crops also require more maintenance! A rotating cast of parent volunteers supports the Farm to School Coordinator, Sarah Rosow, by weeding the beds, fertilizing the blueberry bushes on weekends, or stopping in with a skid steer to move soil and mulch. Guilford also participates in Food Connects’ Summer Garden Program, which keeps families involved and ensures that the gardens are weeded and watered throughout the summer months. Valuing the importance of the program, the Guilford Country Store has donated additional funds to support the summer garden program.

A grant from RiseVT allowed the school to install a StoryWalk to encourage classes and community members to get outdoors, take a walk, and enjoy a story. The school purchases 

books at a discount from Everyone’s Books for the storywalk, on themes ranging from diversity to nature to food and farming.

Food Connects sent sprouting kits to interested classes at the start of spring, getting students excited about the growing season and enabling them to try sunflower and pea sprout taste tests. All the students’ cooking endeavors, from bread on a stick to sweet potato tots, are chronicled in a community cookbook. With more help from Food Connects and printing from C&S Print Shop, every family will be able to take home a cookbook plus a cooking kit thanks to funding from VT Fresh. The hands-on curriculum has proved invaluable during the pandemic, encouraging student engagement and helping build excitement about returning to school after a year of remote and hybrid learning.

The school has highlighted local food in meals for students. Recipe kits were sent home with students that featured local ingredients such as salad greens from Milkweed Farm and maple syrup donated by Franklin Farm. Students get to enjoy Franklin Farm beef year-round in the cafeteria, thanks to their partnership with the school.

Each contribution from the community helps build up the robust Farm to School program students currently enjoy. As Guilford looks towards the future, there’s excitement for more to come. “As COVID restrictions are lifted,” says Sarah Rosow, “we’ll be looking to get families even more involved in the gardens, to generate more community involvement around our new sugaring program, and to re-establish our Winter Market.”

John Gagnon only sees growth in the future for the program, “we are very grateful and excited to continue this journey with our community partners in an elementary school that nurtures a love and respect for our natural environment.”

Photo: Kindergarteners Jared and Jimmy plant a peach tree near the K/1 outdoor classroom.

Guilford Central School is a small elementary school in Southern Vermont serving 120 children from Pre-K - sixth grade. The Guilford Farm to School program enables students to regularly spend time working in the school gardens, cooking, composting, and visiting local farms. From monthly taste tests of healthy, locally sourced foods that are prepared and served by students in every grade, to tapping trees and boiling sap, GCS students are connected with Guilford's farming heritage.

Food Connects is an entrepreneurial non-profit that delivers locally produced food as well as educational and consulting services aimed at transforming local food systems. The Farm to School Program, acknowledged as a statewide leader, supports over 30 schools to increase local food purchasing, school meal participation, and food, farm, and nutrition education.