Sowing Seeds of Solidarity

Schools partner with a nonprofit to teach children and communities about the benefits of fresh, local food

By Leah Penniman

Illustrator: Seeds of Solidarity / Deb Habib

Photo: Seeds of Solidarity / Deb Habib

“People nowadays don’t really seem to care. They aren’t thinking about how fresh food is part of your health. I know now how important fresh and local is to my health.” — Marcus, 9, a Butterfield Elementary School student

In today’s fast-food culture, it’s not easy to get kids interested in eating fresh, local food. But in Massachusetts, Seeds of Solidarity, a nonprofit organization, has partnered with six schools in a poor and working-class area to address problems of obesity and food insecurity (lack of resources to procure adequate quantity and quality of food). Their goal is to put fresh, local food on the menu and educate teachers and students about nutrition and food policy. Seeds of Solidarity is a grassroots nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide people with the inspiration and practical tools to grow food and use renewable energy in their communities.

The schools involved are in Athol and Orange, the largest of the nine towns in North Quabbin, a predominantly poor and working-class, white, rural region in Central Massachusetts. There are 2,986 students attending public schools in Athol and ­­Orange. Twenty percent of the children in the North Quabbin Region live below the federal poverty level. Athol and Orange are among the 50 poorest Massachusetts towns (of 351) with less than 75 percent of the median household income for the state.

“There is an ongoing need to promote health in our communities,” explains Orange Superintendent Paul Burnim. “Health involves both the physical and mental well-being. If our teachers and families grow to understand the importance and correlation of a good diet with school achievement and lifelong health, we all benefit.”

Photo: Seeds of Solidarity / Deb Habib

Seeds of Solidarity had been running SOL (Seeds of Leadership) Garden, an after-school and summer gardening-based program for Orange and Athol teenagers, since 1999. In 2003, funding through a USDA Community Food Projects grant enabled partnerships with schools to expand and initiate school-based gardens. Deb Habib, director of Seeds of Solidarity, approached the North Quabbin superintendents, principals, and teachers. She explained that Seeds of Solidarity could contribute time and a small amount of grant funds toward a project to encourage youth to grow and eat fresh food. She then asked teachers in the schools to help design a project that worked for them. A diverse array of projects was born of these early conversations, ranging from a “pizza garden” — growing tomatoes, peppers, and onions — at two elementary schools to three greenhouses built with students at three schools in which 5th graders, 8th graders, and a special needs inclusion class now raise and distribute more than 1,500 organic vegetable seedlings to gardens throughout the community.

In addition to the gardens and greenhouses, Seeds of Solidarity partners with the schools’ health educator to provide a one-hour presentation to 40 classes on local food from local farms as part of the health curriculum, featuring Seeds of Solidarity staff dressed in character as Tired Transported Tanya and Lively Local Louise. Teens from Seeds of Solidarity gardens help facilitate these presentations. Seeds of Solidarity interns also provide teachers and students with three monthly lessons on seed sowing, transplanting, and composting during the early spring, in preparation for outdoor gardening. These programs and activities are aligned with the schools’ overall efforts to create and implement wellness policies (see sidebar p. 37). Gardens and Greenhouses “It is so much cooler to eat something after you’ve helped it grow; it makes me want to eat more of them,” says Lillian, 13, an Athol student. “I’ve been trying a lot of new foods that I never had before.”

William LaRose, a science and history teacher at Athol-Roylaston Middle School, has worked with Seeds of Solidarity for two years. “[They] have helped the students of ARMS Middle School by building not one, but two greenhouses. Our first greenhouse did not survive the remnants of Hurricane Katrina. Seeds of Solidarity has also provided seeds, tools, planting benches, potting soil, curriculum, and planting ideas.”

Maintaining school growing space has its challenges. One greenhouse was vandalized — a hole cut in a wall and potting benches overturned. The 5th grade students were angry and determined to save their project. They picked up the benches until the vandalism stopped.

Courtney Imbriglio, a 4th grade teacher in Orange, said, “Last year, my students got involved in constructing a greenhouse and planting fruit and vegetable seeds. When the seedlings were ready to go into the ground, students were very excited to take them home to plant. Since there were so many seedlings, we sold them at our school’s ice cream social. It proved to be a nice opportunity to promote wellness at what was previously a relatively un-healthy event.”

Six schools are now involved in the gardens and greenhouses initiative with Seeds of Solidarity. Creating Curriculum Seeds of Solidarity is also coordinating regional efforts to promote fresh food in policy development and implementation as well as professional development including a course for teachers “reading, writing, and wellness” that integrates nutrition education, gardens, and local food into the curriculum.

Photo: Seeds of Solidarity / Deb Habib

The reading, writing, and wellness course is designed to provide educators with ideas and inspiration to get students personally invested in nutrition and wellness and to engage students in growing, preparing, and consuming local foods. The course also examines systemic barriers to consumers accessing local food, such as advertising, corporate agriculture, and government subsidies for large-scale, conventional farms. The course emphasizes community resources and local agriculture in the North Quabbin region as assets for school wellness programs. Over six two-hour sessions, teachers earn credit designing projects for their students related to wellness. Guest experts on nutrition, farming, and environmental policy and a guest chef share their expertise with teachers.

Deborah Piragis, a language arts teacher involved in creating curriculum with Seeds of Solidarity is part of a team of 8th grade teachers whose students built a greenhouse and raised seedlings. “They learned what it means to care for something living so that it grows and can be enjoyed. Students also took part in a seedling sale. From the business end, this is really a great education for making financial decisions, marketing, and learning how to speak to adults in a formal way.”

Even though school meals are regulated, there is room for nutritional improvement. Sherry Fiske, food service director for the elementary schools in Orange says:

Most food service directors are daunted by fiscal shuffling when they attempt to introduce fresh food to the menu. With a fixed amount of money available for each lunch, one has to be creative balancing the higher cost of fresh with the lower cost of some main course items. ‘Not dabbling with fresh’ has been made very easy, through discounted governmental food commodities and wide-open descriptors of what counts for a vegetable or fruit. It is easy for food service directors to lay low and only serve what is required by laws governing school lunches. Some creativity is necessary to imagine lunches and breakfasts differently.

Despite these challenges, Fiske is committed to including fresh, local food in school meals. She adds, “It only makes sense to the diets and working minds we are responsible for.”

School wellness policies offer opportunities for schools to set higher standards for their food programs creatively and in a way that involves the community. “Healthy fresh foods are not a part of [students’] lives, outside of the school environment,” says Fiske. Some children must have fresh foods explained to them in the cafeteria as they will not have encountered foods that are not processed, frozen, or canned in their homes.” She adds that in her experience, students are less likely to throw away fresh foods than canned or frozen ones.

In partnership with Seeds of Solid-arity, the Orange elementary schools set the ambitious goal of purchasing 20 percent of the fruits and vegetables from local farmers. Fresh, local produce is not only healthier for students but has a significantly smaller “ecological footprint” than conventionally grown foods shipped over long distances. Fiske already had started a school garden, so linking with local farmers was a logical step for her. There were many hurdles. First, the school (like most) gets the bulk of its food through the commodities program of the USDA, which is tied in with large agribusiness, not local farmers. Transportation was another challenge. And local farmers cannot always supply food as consistently as major food distributors.

Fiske began the initiative to include fresh, local foods in the menu with a special fall event where community members and school professionals from neighboring districts were invited to dine on fresh, local food at the school while discussing strategies for designing wellness policies.

Carol Hillman owns two small apple orchards and a cider mill in New Salem, Mass., and supplies the local Orange Elementary schools and the regional high school. “Last year I attended the cultivating fresh wellness policy dinner,” Hillman says. “I am looking forward to future and expanded involvement with the schools. A number of classes from the Swift River School in New Salem have come to the farm to learn about the operation of an orchard, and also to help by picking up drops [harvesting dropped apples]. I feel very strongly that the more we can educate young children and their families about the benefits of eating healthy produce that is locally grown, the better it will be for their health and enjoyment.”

Photo: Seeds of Solidarity / Deb Habib

Embracing the Challenge

The Wellness Policy is a new federal requirement that may spawn genuine community nutrition partnerships, if grassroots leadership takes the initiative. But the wellness policies, another unfunded mandate, might also serve only to further stress school personnel and might ultimately exist solely on paper. Given the financial stresses and time contraints on schools, the mandate might well be ignored or trivialized. Even if good policies are developed, lack of funding will likely prevent implementation. But Habib believes that developing wellness policies can provide opportunities for conversations that improve the lives and health of students.

For schools in low-income areas, junk food often generates much-needed revenue from bake sales, vending machines, and a la carte programs. And it’s the low-income students in these schools who could benefit the most from a comprehensive wellness policy. Poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity also can increase schools’ costs if special programs must be designed for children who suffer academically or behaviorally because of these conditions. In addition, the physical and emotional problems that poor nutrition and physical inactivity cause place an increased burden on teachers and other school staff who must provide students affected by these problems with additional services.

Participants in the partnerships between the Athol and Orange schools and Seeds of Solidarity make real lifestyle changes. Tim is a 6th grade student in Orange: “If I hadn’t done this program, I probably wouldn’t have a garden at my house and that would be sad. I’d like people to know that it’s more important to be healthy than wealthy.”

Leah Penniman ( is a math and science teacher at the Independent Learning Center in Albany, N.Y. She also serves on the board of Seeds of Solidarity,