Healthy Schools

Denver school farms help stock cafeterias

Half a dozen workers crouched in the field mounding hay around organic bell pepper and zucchini plants as the morning sun beat down on a recent summer day.

Vitto Moscoso, who is going into 11th grade, works at the farm at Bradley International School.
Vitto Moscoso, who is going into 11th grade, works at the farm at Bradley International School.

With their work boots, gloves and brimmed hats, they looked a lot like farmers anywhere else in the Colorado’s rural expanse. The difference is these workers were toiling away on a one-acre plot at Bradley International School in southwest Denver, their shovels and wheelbarrows a hundred feet away from the school’s bright yellow swing set.

The farm, one of three on Denver Public Schools grounds, is part of the district’s pilot farm-to-school program, which converts unused school land into working farms that produce tens of thousands of pounds of produce for school cafeterias. In addition to the farm at Bradley, which was established in 2012, there are farms at Schmitt Elementary and Denver Green School. There’s also a farm at McGlone Elementary School, but it’s on hiatus this summer while construction occurs there.

“This is the beginning,” Anne Wilson, the district’s farm-to-school coordinator, said of the district’s recent plunge into urban agriculture. “Certainly, we hope to look at doing more sites in the future.”

School farms rare

The DPS school farm project appears to be one of the first of its kind, at least in Colorado. Jeremy West, nutrition service director for Weld County District 6 and chairman of the Colorado Farm to School Task Force, said he’s not aware of other districts that have similar programs.

The farm at Bradley is not far from the school playground.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The farm at Bradley is not far from the school playground.

“I would say they’re pretty unique,” said West. “I think they’re…on the forefront of having urban farming on their property.”

While over 60 Colorado schools or districts have some type of farm-to-school initiative, he said, it often takes the form of buying fruits and vegetables from local growers, not raising hundreds of tons of produce at the schools themselves.

While not quite on the scale of Denver’s farm program, Colorado Springs District 11 does grow about 1,500 pounds of produce a year, including lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, squash, spinach and herbs in a greenhouse and five raised beds at Galileo School of Math and Science. The produce is used at Galileo as well as cafeterias throughout the district.

In DPS, the school farms are not to be confused with school gardens, which exist at many Denver schools, including Bradley. While the smaller-scale gardens may contribute some produce to school salad bars, they are typically more of an educational tool with school and community volunteers responsible for their upkeep.

The farms, by contrast, are focused on production with contractors in charge of their operation and extensive protocols for food safety.

Produce Denver, an urban agriculture company, is the contractor at Bradley and Schmitt, as well as three non-school sites in Denver, including the Colorado Convention Center. This year, the two school farms are expected to yield about 1,000 pounds of tomatoes and bell peppers a week, 600 pounds of cucumbers and 400 pounds of zucchini a week from late August to late October. The zucchini and bell pepper crop will completely satisfy the district’s weekly needs during that period. The tomatoes will satisfy only about one-third of the district’s weekly needs and the cucumbers only one-fifth.

Denver Green School, which partners with Sprout City Farms to run its one-acre vegetable and herb farm, doesn’t contribute its 11,000-pound annual produce yield for districtwide cafeteria use. However, about half of that is used to cover most of the school’s vegetable needs during the fall. The other half is sold at the school’s farm stand, used in its community-supported agriculture program or donated to emergency food programs.

Gardens gave birth to farms

Many Denver elementary schools built gardens on their campuses through the Learning Landscape Initiative, funded with private and bond money over the past 13 years. At schools like Bradley, Schmitt and McGlone, there was enough unused space to consider bigger plots as well. At Bradley, for example, the school garden adjacent to the playground was green and thriving, but the northeast corner of the school’s property was empty save for a layer of pea gravel and an unused backstop.

“It was a prison yard,” said Alethea McClure, a health paraprofessional at the school and regular garden volunteer. “It was horrible,”

The school garden at Bradley is next to the school's farm.
The school garden at Bradley is next to the school’s farm.

Wilson said, “What started us on working with the farms and bringing the food into cafeterias was school gardens. We had these beautiful school gardens producing all this fabulous produce…We sat down and came up with a protocol that would address the food safety concerns.”

Wilson said Slow Food Denver, a non-profit that promotes local and sustainable foods, helped develop that protocol and has been a key partner in the farm project.

Students now get to experience the growing process first hand in the school’s garden, and see the larger-scale farm operation unfold a stone’s throw away. To Wilson and McClure, the garden and farm are natural companions.

McClure, who has two daughters attending Bradley, said it’s important “for our kids to see that…food comes from somewhere. It doesn’t come from a truck.”

She added, “They’re so proud because in our salad bar…they know there’s a chance it was grown here.”

Grade-schoolers aren’t the only ones who see the farm-to-school process for themselves. Several Denver area teens are paid to work at the Bradley and Schmitt farms through an organization that partners with Produce Denver. It’s called Groundworks Denver and focuses on making urban environmental improvements.

Vitto Moscoso, who is going into 11th grade at Career Education Center Middle College of Denver, took a break from his work in a row of zucchini plants to talk about his farm job.

“I like working outdoors,” he said. It’s also nice “knowing it’s going to the schools.”

Future DPS farms

District leaders already know there’s room for more school farms in Denver. Wilson said a study funded by the Colorado Health Foundation a couple years found that there were about 18 acres of farmable land in the district at the time.

The farm at Bradley sits on an acre in the back corner of the campus.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The farm at Bradley sits on an acre in the back corner of the campus.

“There’s acres and acres of land that isn’t needed, that’s maybe either pea gravel or turf that isn’t being used by the kids and isn’t being used for athletics,” said Wilson.

Still, vacant land and the demand for produce in the 84,000-student district aren’t the only variables in the equation. There’s also the cost of setting up new irrigation systems, buying seeds and paying for labor.

“There is an upfront cost and that’s why we’re not doing 18 acres tomorrow,” said Wilson.

She said it’s too early in the farm project to determine if harvesting produce from campus farms save the district money.

“We’ll be better able to answer that question in a few years,” she said. “Certainly, we want to make sure it’s financially sustainable over the long haul.”

Future school building expansion is another factor that may affect the long-term trajectory of the farm project, potentially eating into the acreage identified in the Colorado Health Foundation study.

A nearly $100,000 grant recently awarded to the district by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will help the district map out its farming future. In addition to helping create a strategic plan, the grant will fund additional food safety initiatives, consultations about future farm sites as well as menu-planning and recipe-testing efforts.

Wilson said until the district creates more farmland, the food service department will have to supplement district-grown crops like tomatoes and cucumbers with produce from vendors.

Even so, she said, “It’s exciting because it still will reach all the schools we service.”

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

Emerging partnership

Memphis schools have space. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. Now they just need money to put clubs in three schools.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
Memphis students show off "cancer awareness" posters they created as part of a Boys & Girls Club program at Promise Academy, a charter school in Raleigh. Three more clubs could open in Memphis schools by 2018.

Grappling with numerous under-enrolled schools and significant neighborhood needs, Memphis school leaders are seeking to fill some empty space by partnering with the Boys & Girls Club.

Shelby County Schools is working with the organization’s Memphis chapter to open clubs by 2018 inside three schools: Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High.

But first they have to secure about $1 million to pay for the clubs’ first year of operations.

Both entities view the emerging partnership as a way to connect space and programming to strengthen schools and their neighborhoods. The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis also wants to expand beyond its current seven sites.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a $4 or $5 million facility somewhere only to have the population shift due to school closure or neighborhood changes,” said executive director Keith Blanchard. “Suddenly, you have this super nice club and no kids. This way, we can go to where the kids are.”

The partnership would step up the effort of Shelby County Schools to join a national trend in developing community schools, which put facilities to use beyond the traditional school day and emphasize a holistic approach for addressing poverty, health and behavior. The arrangement also would tap into a growth and missional model for the Boys & Girls Club, which has been successful in working with schools in cities such as Orlando.

Blanchard hopes the new Memphis clubs would provide students with an after-school option in schools where extracurriculars are slim, as well as a place to go during summer breaks. Each site could serve up to 240 students.

While the district can provide space and utilities, each site would cost an estimated $330,000 to operate — an expense that district leaders plan to ask the County Commission to cover initially. The long-term goal is to get corporate and donor support.

“The last thing we want to do is open these clubs and have to close in two years,” Blanchard said.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club operates seven clubs in Memphis.

Under-enrolled school buildings are plentiful in Shelby County Schools, where leaders have closed more than 20 schools since 2012, partially due to low enrollment. At the same time, Memphis school leaders are seeking more resources to serve a disproportionately high number of poor, black and disabled students.

“We are always looking for ways to expose our students to programs/activities that foster good citizenship, character building, and healthy lifestyles that contribute to student success,” a district spokeswoman said in an email this month.

The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis already has one school-based club at Promise Academy, a state-run charter school in Raleigh, where about 60 students attend.

Blanchard said the three newest school sites were chosen because the organization doesn’t have a strong presence in those neighborhoods.

Dunbar Elementary Principal Anniece Gentry said the Orange Mound community would welcome the additional resource.

“There’s not a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club in this area,” Gentry said. “This would be a place not just for students, but for the entire neighborhood, as a way to bring families together. For the students, having structured resources in the afternoon is going to help them to grow even better during the academic school day.”