Gotta love the fabo eco-experiment (in more ways than one) in its second year at an independent K-8th school in El Cerrito, a suburban enclave adjacent to food-centric Berkeley in Northern California. It’s a program that seems well worth replicating in cash-strapped schools across the country.
Here’s what’s happening: Every Wednesday between 12 and 2 at Windrush School you’ll find kids and parent volunteers busily boxing beautiful, organic, seasonal produce dropped off by local farmers for about 100 school families to pick up. The school’s Farm Stand feeds folks, builds community, and offers opportunities to put into practice science, math, and nutrition lessons. And, here’s the ka-ching kicker: The program raises revenue as well — to the tune of a cool $20,000 a year. That’s no chump change for any school, public or private, during tight financial times.
On a recent sunny Wednesday, a gaggle of giggly students weighed potatoes and pluots, carefully counted peaches, and filled baskets to the brim with to-die-for Maria Catalan strawberries. Grown-ups supervised the parceling out of produce like kale, beets, potatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers. There was surprisingly little sampling — and not nearly the chaos anticipated — until the jobs were done and then everyone was rewarded with a luscious piece of fruit or a crunchy salad veggie.
The brainchild of parent Lucy Aghadjian, a petite dynamo who is passionate about produce, the Farm Stand now serves as an integral part of the school’s fundraising efforts. It’s subsidized by participating families for the price of a couple of fancy coffees a week (about $3-$5 a box goes directly to the school). Two years ago, Aghadjian got new head of school Ilana Kaufman, a kindred spirit on the good-food front, jazzed about the fresh idea. In this neck of the woods, it didn’t take much prodding to get parents on board.
Local growers, like beloved farmers market mainstays such as Full Belly, Riverdog, Swanton Berry, and Twin Girls, drop off recently-harvested crops at the school’s Farm Stand shed or a nearby market on their way down the freeway on a regular East Bay run. Relationships are nurtured on both sides: Full Belly Farm recently hosted a group of 5th graders on an overnight adventure. When Farmer Bill from Swanton mentioned he was buried in artichokes, Aghadjian happily took them off his hands — and included a simply delicious recipe for the spring vegetable in her weekly flyer tucked inside each box. (Educating adults and children about how to cook unfamiliar produce is key to the stand’s success.)
Sure, loads of neighborhoods serve as pick-up points for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) mostly-veg boxes but what’s going on at Windrush is a win-win-win for all three parties.
Could other schools follow the Windrush model? What ingredients do you need in the mix? If you know of similar income-generating produce programs in other schools feel free to add advice about what’s essential to making a school Farm Stand thrive.
Five must-haves gleaned from a recent visit:
1. A gung-ho, can-do instigator leading the way. It certainly helps if this person has food cred: Aghadjian is a caterer who had existing connections with farmers.
2. A school administrator who sees the program’s value from a curriculum, community, and economic perspective. Kaufman routinely swings by the stand, meets with farmers, and offers samples to parents and students at the end of the school day.
3. The blessing and buy-in of local growers. And the realization on the school end that you need to make it easy for farm folk to participate.
4. A small core of devoted parent volunteers willing to sort produce — rain or shine — each week. Amazingly, Windrush has had only one rainy day since the stand started.
5. A leap of faith. Isn’t that what every great idea needs?
And, of course, the payoff that comes from raising money in a fun and life-affirming way — and hearing from kids who discover they love kohlrabi or pomellos? Priceless.
Photos: Sarah Henry