Denver Green School seeds new innovation – growing their own food

The Denver Green School, classed as an Innovation Status school by the Denver Public School system, is trying out yet another innovation – growing their own food and serving it to students in their cafeteria.


Like everything in education, it’s a bit more complicated than it seems. A previously abandoned one-acre field behind the school has been taken over by Sprout City Farms, a project devoted to “innovative urban farms on underutilized land, rooting farmers in the city and bringing good food to neighborhoods.” The food grown is then sold back to the school to be served in the cafeteria. As you may imagine, there were lawyers involved at various steps of the process but Allen Potter, 6th Grade teacher and founding partner of the school, was quick to point out that school district lawyers “were actually our allies in this.”

Allen gave me a tour of the garden and indicated a remaining small patch of scrubby, weedy dirt. “All of this land looked like this. It was just crap. This is all productive land now.” He introduced me to Sprout City Farm Manager and Co-Founder Chad Hagedorn. Chad has the firm handshake and calm demeanor of any other farmer you might meet, even if his current spread is 50 feet from a jungle gym.

“We broke ground in March of 2011,” said Chad. The arrangement with the district took about 18 months in total. “Basically, the way we set it up to make it amenable with the school is that we would match the prices of their wholesale rates, so the same prices that they get from companies like Sysco for industrial agriculture, conventional produce, we would match those prices for onsite-grown, local, organically-grown produce. And that’s the way it was a palatable arrangement with the public school system. We lose money by selling for that low a rate but we can make up for it because we’re a non-profit through fund-raising, community support, and we get a lot of volunteer help.”

The garden is everything you would expect from a Colorado farm. Cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, tons of basil (enough for thousands of dollars worth of pesto), green onions, onions, squash, summer squash, all neatly laid out in rows in the midday sun under dozens of darting butterflies.

Back inside the cafeteria we sat with dining students and Meg Caley, Sprout City Farm Outreach Coordinator and also a Co-Founder. Meg is an earthy young woman with an infectious smile and she beamed as she told me what produce made it to the cafeteria that day. “Tomatoes, cabbage for the salad, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and green bell peppers.”

We gathered our trays of baked chicken and headed to the salad bar but we were largely too late – the students had cleaned out the tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers. We made do with the salad and as we ate Allen told me more about the goals of the farm.

“Commodity products will be part of the picture for a long time because it’s free and the quality is actually improving. This is actually a reasonable piece of chicken, it’s baked, it’s got herbs on it, it’s yummy. But we’re trying to get to a point where much more of it is coming from our garden and local suppliers.”

I bit into a piece of tomato from my salad. It was richly flavored and sun-kissed as only fresh produce can be and I was slightly envious of the kids who ate the bulk of them.

Of course, the real audience for these grand plans sits at small desks and does homework in pencil. I asked some of Mr. Potter’s students what they thought of the new arrangement. They seemed impressed. “It’s really cool,” said Ashley Zolbayar. “It’s really healthy for us. It gets us moving and gets our bodies energized.” Amaya LeFrere agreed. “I like it because it’s fresh and it’s nice to see our garden improving.” Rebecca Egan thought the garden would be good for the general health of the student body. “I think that it’s good for students to be able to eat stuff straight from the garden.”

One student had reasonable concerns about pesticides. “I think it’s pretty cool but I don’t know what will happen if it’s not clean. You don’t know what chemicals can be on it,” said Trenton Palizzi. Another student, Abraham Thompson, was focused on the primary purpose of the farm. “I just want to eat. When people talk about food, it makes me hungry. Sometimes I don’t care about the food. I just want it in my mouth.”

To ensure that students understand the importance of where their food comes from before it is processed, packaged, sealed, delivered or served from a drive-through window, the school will be hosting a Harvest Festival in late October to teach students the importance of local food. And for these kids it doesn't get much more local.

_____________________

Photo: Allen Potter and Chad Hagedorn/ by Chris Cunnyngham

Denver Green School Community Farm on Kickstarter

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The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

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Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

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Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.