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Farm Lab: Learning and School Lunch

Encinitas Unified School District's Farm Lab is both a certified organic farm and a living classroom.

By Maria Finn

Creating Super-Hero Vegetables was just one of the brilliant branding ideas fifth-graders in Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) came up with to encourage their classmates to eat healthier. The district’s belief that healthy students are better students inspired Farm Lab, the first certified organic farm owned by a school district in the United States.

According to Farm Lab Director Mim Michelove, it’s not only a working farm that provides produce for school lunches, but it’s also a living classroom. Roughly five acres of the 10-acre site is dedicated to growing crops for school meals. Professional farmers from the local Coastal Roots Farm help the district manage the crops destined for school lunch. Another 2.5 acres is set aside for class activities and a learning garden.

All 5400 students in the K–6 district will spend some time at Farm Lab this year. A dedicated teacher on campus uses Farm Lab for classes focused on the environment and nutrition, as well as using the farm to pose real-world agricultural challenges. EUSD’s curriculum focuses on a DREAMS (Design, Research, Engineering, Art, Math, and Science) model, which begins with a question to be solved or a problem to be fixed by applying design and research. First-grade students have been tasked with how to deter pests using sound and motion instead of pesticides. They construct noise-making contraptions from toilet paper rolls, pipe cleaners, and seeds, which they hang in the garden to scare off pests. Other problem-based educational activities include learning about water conservation and designing a grey water system using Israeli rain barrels.

 “Farm Lab helps raise the kids’ food IQ,” says Jennifer McNeil, child nutrition director at Encinitas Union from 2014–2016 and currently a consultant with the district. “This will bridge the gap between classroom learning and the lunchroom.” Michelove noted, “And the kids have so much fun learning that they forget they’re in school.”

In August of 2016, Farm Lab became organically certified. This was a personal mission for Michelove. About 12 years ago, she put her own young son on an organic diet, and became involved in trying to eliminate school snacks that involved sugar and highly processed foods. She found the changes in her son’s behavior and health so profound that she wanted to bring this to other children. One of her first projects was a one-acre farm at Ocean Knoll Elementary School in Encinitas, where teachers could use the farm as an extension of their classrooms while growing vegetables for the entire district. Michelove explains, “We’d have the kids help grow squash, which the school kitchens then made into a delicious squash soup paired with grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. The kids got really excited to eat the food that they had grown.”

EUSD’s goal is to have 75 percent of the items in its daily salad bars in the district stocked by Farm Lab, which currently supplies about 30 percent of the salad bar produce, including greens, carrots, sugar snap peas, celery, and bell peppers and tomatoes in season. Because items such as tomatoes and peppers are bumper crops during the summer, when school isn’t in session, McNeil began roasting Farm Lab’s summer harvest, and freezing it for use in pizza and marinara sauces throughout the following school year. 

McNeil has also worked with the Center for Ecoliteracy to bring additional local foods and scratch-made meals to EUSD through the California Thursdays® initiative. Says Center for Ecoliteracy Executive Director Zenobia Barlow, “Through California Thursdays, we’re collaborating with a network of school districts to increase the amount of California-grown food in school meals and helping students learn where their food comes from. Farm Lab provides an ideal setting for achieving those goals.”