Chicago Public Schools Announces Pilot Garden-to-Cafeteria Program

August 08, 2013

One school’s salad goes from garden to table.

One day at Miles Davis Magnet Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side, students noticed something very familiar about the purple lettuce in the salad bar at lunch:  it was the same lettuce they’d been growing in their school garden!

Students were participating in “Eat What You Grow,” a new garden-to-cafeteria program  designed to get students excited about growing and eating their own fruits and vegetables and inspired to learn more about where their food comes from. Students harvested 13.4 pounds of lettuce, enough to supply the salad bar for that day, and made the connection that the purple lettuce was from their own garden.

Studies have shown that children involved in growing food are more likely to try those foods, especially fruits and vegetables. And what’s happening in Chicago is a great example. Drew Thomas, School Garden Coordinator for Chicago Public Schools, says the day was a success, with students enthusiastic about both trying the new salad and being a part of the process, from harvesting the lettuce to working with the school’s Engineering Coordinator, Mike McKinney to learn how to make sure everything was safe and sanitary.

“The student garden team was all able to get themselves to school early knowing that it was harvest day,” Thomas says. “I think that, in and of itself, demonstrated the excitement and the commitment. Everybody wanted to help.”

Miles Davis is one of five Chicago elementary schools piloting Eat What You Grow, and one of two that have already harvested, along with the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC). Together, these schools are working with CPS and a number of community organizations, including FamilyFarmed.org, Healthy Schools Campaign, the Chicago Botanic Gardens and the University of Illinois Extension.

They create a safe and successful system by which schools can grow fresh, delicious produce in their gardens and then prepare and serve that same produce in their cafeteria. In addition to being another local, sustainable source for vegetables, school gardens are a fantastic educational opportunity to show students where their food comes from.

“We want students to have a deeper connection with the way that food is produced,” says Jim Slama, Executive Director of FamilyFarmed.org. “We want them to understand, ‘you grow the food, you prepare it and then you eat it.’”

Since joining the CPS team in February, Drew Thomas has been working on fine-tuning and implementing the manual with the pilot schools. A key component of this process has been training: the pilot schools were required to go through a Good Agricultural Practices training, with an emphasis on food safety and how to prevent foodborne illness.

Thomas says the goal is to have a streamlined process by spring of 2014, so schools who have an established garden team can go through the trainings, develop a food safety plan and start harvesting produce.

He has high hopes for this model. “I really think that this model can be applied on a variety of scales, and that’s one of the great things about it,” he says. “You can have a school like AGC, or maybe it’s a classroom that has food-grade containers growing in a window garden, and you can still build that excitement. You don’t have to have a school farm in order to do this and do this well.”

If you are  Chicago public school teacher, school administrator or staff member and are interested in bringing the Eat What You Grow program to your school, please contact Drew Thomas at the CPS Office of Student Health and Wellness, at 773-553-1031 or at dmthomas21@cps.edu.