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Courtesy of CPS/Drew Thomas

Miles Davis Magnet Academy students gather around the lettuce they harvested that day to be served to their peers for lunch.

CPS' student farmers eat what they grow -- and now they'll share what they know

by Monika Wnuk
Nov 14, 2013

A food-safety training manual piloted in Chicago Public Schools will serve as a national model for schools seeking to grow produce for their school cafeterias. The manual looks at such things as water sources and soil content.

“Eat What You Grow! A School Garden Food Safety Manual for Chicago Public Schools” was funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was developed and written by CPS, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Academy for Global Citizenship and, a non-profit that puts farmers in contact with schools.

The program was piloted by eight Chicago Public Schools, one of which was Miles Davis Magnet Academy in West Englewood.

In June, Miles Davis students harvested 13 pounds of lettuce they planted in their school garden in the spring. They then handed it off to kitchen staff who washed and served it in the school cafeteria during lunch.

“It’s beautiful to see [students] immediately make that connection,” said CPS school garden coordinator Drew Thomas. “They hadn’t served the Mesclun green mix that has purple and red leaves in the dining center before, so the students immediately knew that is was the purple lettuce from outside.”

The connection made by the students was a driving force behind the decision to launch the school garden training manual nationally.

“With all due respect, [food] doesn’t come from Dominick’s. Someone has to produce it,” said Kevin Concannon, the USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. Local sourcing eliminates transportation costs and reduces each school’s carbon footprint, he said.

Twenty-six percent of the 535 Illinois school districts that participated in the census are bringing local produce to school cafeterias, contributing $6 million to local farmers, according to the USDA’s Farm to School census released earlier this month.

Julia Govis, the Illinois state lead for the national Farm to School network said that local sourcing is just one part of the Farm to School mission. Her team at the University of Illinois is working to improve and help spread the school garden model. In addition to developing youth garden clubs and encouraging parents to get involved, she is especially excited about a new online garden safety program that will certify teachers and volunteers as garden managers.

For the 400 CPS schools that have gardens, Govis said her team recommends “that each school has at least one designated school garden manager who has gone through this training and would be the point person for food safety.”

Govis said she is waiting for approval to launch a Food Corps program in Illinois next year. A hybrid between Farm to School and AmeriCorps, Food Corps trains and deploys service members throughout the state to work on school gardens and garden education.

“We’re really excited about everything that’s happening in Chicago,” Govis said.