A local program that teaches students about healthy food and gives them access to such food will be able to expand after securing a new grant.

United General District 304 has announced it has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will help it reach more students in the Sedro-Woolley School District.

The $91,832 is expected to fund the Farm to School program though June 2023. It follows up an earlier planning grant, also from the USDA.

“We’re very excited,” said Adele Eslinger, program coordinator with United General. “The focus of the grant is partnership with the Sedro-Woolley School District. We’ll expand food services and keep building relationships with local farmers.”

The Sedro-Woolley program will be similar to the robust Farm to School program the hospital district runs in partnership with the Concrete School District, which focuses on cooking from scratch with local ingredients in school kitchens, and blending school gardens into school life.

Allison Johnston, food services and warehouse supervisor for the Sedro-Woolley School District, said the planning grant helped those involved in the program figure out the best way to buy and incorporate locally grown produce into the district.

She said the new grant will help them deepen that effort.

“We’ve got some skills, equipment and connections to move forward,” Johnston said.

For example, the planning grant allowed the school district to purchase a food processor so it can chop its own produce, rather than relying on bringing in processed foods.

The planning grant also helped staff get training on ways to prepare the fresh produce, and to get recipes that will entice young eaters to try new things, Johnston said.

“There’s different, minor strategies that can make a big impact on whether a kid tries (a new food),” she said. “Having a familiar food mixed in with something that they’re maybe not as familiar with like beets.”

Samish Elementary School Principal Mischelle Darragh said the program helped the school’s first-graders start a raised garden they will continue to maintain this year as second graders. More gardens are expected to follow.

“Having more outdoor learning opportunities right now is such an important part of the kids’ growth,” Darragh said. “There are so many opportunities for learning in science, in math. It really ties so many concepts together. We feel like this connects our kids, our families and the bigger community.”

While nourishing food is part of the Farm to School program’s mission, it’s not the only part. Students also learn where their food comes from, how to team up with others and how to care for the environment.

One important facet, Johnston said, is to teach kids to make healthy eating and healthy living part of their everyday lives.

“How can we promote healthy eating and taking care of our bodies and being mindful consumers too?” Johnston said.

The program’s garden-based education also gives students a hands-on experience they don’t get in a classroom.

“We see students in a different space in the garden,” Eslinger said. “They’re able to function differently than they do in a classroom setting.”

Aside from Samish Elementary School, Central and Evergreen elementary schools have gardens in various stages of development, Eslinger said.

The goal, she said, is to make the Sedro-Woolley School District’s Farm to School program as impactful as the one in Concrete, but to do so on Sedro-Woolley’s terms.

“How do we come alongside a school district and become invested in the school district and become a part of the school district, and offer what we think are life-changing opportunities for students?” Eslinger said.

— Skagit Valley Herald reporter Kera Wanielista contributed to this report.

Reporter Trevor Pyle: 360-416-2156, tpyle@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @goskagit, Facebook.com/bytrevorpyle

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