Ask most kids and you’ll find out where food comes from – the store, of course!
Not exactly the way their parents and grandparents see it.
So, thanks to San Juanita Perez, Hendry County School District Food Service Account Clerk, lots of local children will soon be getting a much clearer idea of where those yummy fruits and vegetables really come from.
When San Juanita came across information from the Florida Department of Agriculture about grants for a program called Farm to School, she followed up on it.
Former Hendry County teacher Bobbie Spratt referred San Juanita to her daughter, LHS graduate Beth, who works for the Department of Agriculture in Tallahassee. Beth steered San Juanita to the proper people and helped her through the process.
San Juanita has spent all of her life here; she and her family have always been involved in agriculture, so the whole project appealed to her. She jumped in with both feet, trying to get a grant for Hendry County to help kids get more connected to the food they eat. She soon realized that “there’s so much more to this than I thought!”
Against the odds, San Juanita’s last minute application was well received and earned Hendry County $25,000 grant – one of six counties to be awarded grants.
She worked to get the application in under the wire with the help of Sodexo, their food management company, which supplied information for the application. For instance, Sodexo purchases 15 percent of its fresh produce locally.
Mr. Erwin Evans, Director of Food Service, is very proud of the effort. “We partnered with the school board to secure the grant,” he said. Their goal is to introduce new and different fruits and vegetables to students and hopefully help provide gardens and even field trips – “just a variety of things” to improve kids’ nutrition.
Mr. Evans has high praise for the employees working on this program. “Talk about stepping up . . .,” he said, these ladies are “on the ball.”
Amazed as she was that her first-ever application made the grade, San Juanita didn’t have time to do anything but dig in. A conference was coming up within days to Greenville, South Carolina, to introduce participants to the program.
San Juanita and Amanda Bailey, Sodexo’s operations manager, toured inner city gardens and hydroponic growing sites that grow vegetables for local restaurants and farmers markets. They even toured a small dairy farm, gathering and sharing information and ideas with other participants. It was a thorough overview of the program’s core and its processes.
In addition to her regular duties, San Juanita took on the job of sharing the program with the children of Hendry County. With a head full of ideas, she is hoping to find volunteers interested in children and agriculture to set up programs, like small gardens, in Hendry County schools.
The program is gearing up to bring local growers into elementary and middle schools to talk about what they do. Hopefully, students will be able to tour area nursery operations. The goal is to help interested community members share their knowledge and to help establish school gardens.
LMS ag program
The first to take up the challenge has been Luis Marquez, LaBelle Middle School ag teacher. A reading teacher last year, this is his first year teaching ag and he has inherited a program that is just one year old. Also coming from a family involved in agriculture, he is very excited about this program and the part Farm to School can play in it, anxious to excite his students with hands-on projects.
A lot of work has already been done by Mr. Maquez and students of the LMS program. They have a greenhouse dome, a composting project and have started a landscaping project at the school. The class is looking forward to a hydroponic experiment for the last nine weeks of this year.
The program already has two pigs, two roosters and is looking forward to bringing in two calves. They’re getting more chickens as well as a pasture and shelter ready for the beef cows.
This year his students have grown tomatoes and peppers, which many of the students have enjoyed at home. The class has sold two pigs and the money gone back into the program.
With limited funds, Mr. Marquez is grateful for the Farm to School program, which can help provide important supplies like irrigation materials and 50 pounds of top soil to enrich the local sandy earth.
Although the supplies are limited, his ideas are not.
Mr. Marquez is most excited about organic gardening – doing away with the chemicals used to augment agriculture but so often have health and environmental consequences. He hopes his students will catch that excitement.
Not all his students will become farmers, but Mr. Marquez wants them all to have an appreciation for good food. He wants to expose them to the feeling of having their hands in the good earth and planting a tiny seed to watch it grow into something that sustains people. It’s a satisfaction he wants them to become familiar with.
He realizes, too, that agriculture provides a dynamic way to include many essential forms of knowledge including reading, math and science.
A business major himself, he wants to introduce the students to the business side of agriculture as well.
His class also introduces kids to concepts like leadership, delegation, respect, the importance of listening and, maybe most of all he says, knowing how to be a good team member – all concepts that will have a huge impact on their entire lives and success.
Mr. Marquez freely admits that “this is a learning experience for me, too.” He is delving deeply into this new endeavor by reading and attending workshops this summer.
His ag projects are long term and said he expects it to take three-to-five years to get truly established.
To date, the LMS program has enjoyed donations from Suncrest Sheds, Builders Choice, Ace Hardware and Tractor Supply and is looking forward to the help the Farm to School program can contribute.
Growing up in a farming family in Felda, Mr. Marquez has an appreciation for agriculture and is confident in its success. He sees the benefit of vocational classes because the kids can see results faster, helping them to grow and mature.
“I can build this program,” he said.
Farm to School
San Juanita is busy working to entrench the Farm to School program in Hendry County. She is hoping to have a logo contest for middle and high school art students. Look for their booth at the Swamp Cabbage Festival this weekend so they can introduce themselves to the community. Bonus: Lipman Farms will provide samples of delicious local produce!
If you’d like more information or would like to volunteer some of your time and expertise, please call San Juanita at 674-4113.