Austin-Area Schools Bringing Fresh and Healthy Food to Students

The garden at Austin High

Although Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has faded into the background since its run ended in 2011, food in schools continues to be a contentious issue. At around the same time, First Lady Michelle Obama founded Let’s Move!, a public information campaign to combat obesity through educating parents, helping provide access to healthier foods and promoting an increase in physical activity among children. There was also the crusade of Mrs. Q, the no-longer-anonymous teacher who ate lunch with her students every day and took a photo and posted it on her blog, Fed Up With Lunch.

In a town whose residents exhibit a serious commitment to healthy living, and where we have a host of foodies and a thriving restaurant scene, it should come as no surprise that in Central Texas, there are many ways that school districts, parents, businesses and farms are working together to increase access to fresh and healthy food at school. For starters, I learned that in the Austin school district, all vegetables are served raw or steamed, with no added fat. Non-meat entrees are provided at all schools on Mondays for those students wishing to participate in the Meatless Monday campaign. I also found out that no product is allowed on school menus which contains trans fats or high fructose corn syrup.

Here is just a sampling of these initiatives happening across Central Texas:

The Farm to School Program

For the last few years, Farm to Table, a company which distributes locally grown farm products to area restaurants, commercial kitchens and independent grocery stores, has also offered food to cafeterias in the Austin school district. What started out as a pilot project with seven schools soon grew to 13 and now 60 participating campuses both in Austin and Central Texas. Cafeteria managers place orders once a week for items such as tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, squash and lettuce. North schools receive their orders on Tuesdays and schools in the south get their deliveries on Thursdays. John Lash, the owner of Farm to Table, works with about 100 farmers and food vendors, mostly within a 120-mile radius of Austin. Lash has seen an increase in interest in cafeteria managers since the program began and is interested in expanding to other schools.


Sustainable Food Center

The Sustainable Food Center’s Grow Local Program focuses on getting information and resources to schools on how to start and sustain school gardens. Participants in the Spread the Harvest program can pick up seeds year round at the SFC office and schools can acquire plants and compost at resource giveaway days, scheduled twice a year. Gardening classes and a school garden curriculum are also available. So far, the SFC has helped over 100 schools in Austin to start gardens. “School gardens are a great way to expose kids to healthy eating,” said Bianca Bidiuc, Grow Local School Garden Manager. “They learn where food comes from and can eat it straight from the plant, allowing them to try new varieties of fruits and vegetables.”

The garden at Austin High
The garden at Austin High

Austin High

With help from Austin High students, Gardening Club Sponsor Profe Sclerandi has transformed an area next to the campus childcare center into a thriving garden. The Gardening Club meets on Friday mornings at 8:00am and typically spends the time until school starts planting small plants from containers, starting seeds in seed trays, spreading compost, turning the compost, watering, weeding and harvesting. Cafeteria staff drop off food scraps from lunch preparation for compost. This year, in the first seven weeks of school, the materials provided by the cafeteria for the compost added up to almost 900 pounds!

Right now, okra, asparagus, a variety of peppers, Swiss chard, Brussel sprouts, lemongrass, yucca, garlic, shallots, kale, mustard greens, cauliflower, broccoli, squash, fennel and other herbs are growing in the garden. In addition, Sclerandi has also worked with the students to plant about a dozen fruit trees, many of which are drought resistant, and grapevines which provide shade to the young children playing outside. The Garden Club now offers a CSA for teachers to distribute the harvest. Each interested staff member pays $30 per semester and receives a bag of produce each Friday that food is harvested. Garden Club members are also encouraged to take home as much food as they would like.

Fresh Friday, Fennel Edition
Fresh Friday, Fennel Edition

Barton Hills Elementary

For the past four years, sixth graders are trained to become fruit and vegetable evangelists at Barton Hills Elementary, as part of the Fresh Friday program. The students visit each classroom four times a year to introduce the fruit or vegetable, explain its health benefits, describe what it tastes like and to relay a fun fact. Samples are distributed, and students wear a sticker home saying “Ask Me About Fresh Fridays” to stimulate conversations with parents at home. The school Wellness Committee, which oversees Fresh Fridays, also sends an email newsletter home (see a newsletter on fennel here) with recipes and activities involving the food. To date, Fresh Fridays have brought cucumber, basil, blueberries, sweet potato, mango, kumquat, beet, rutabaga, pomegranate, bell peppers, fennel, jicama, persimmons, chestnuts, cherry tomatoes and sunflower sprouts to the students.

Becker Elementary

Becker Elementary’s Green Classroom has been providing students with outdoor learning experiences since 1989. The 10,000 square foot organic garden is a collaboration between the school, the Austin Department of Watershed Protection and Keep Austin Beautiful and supported by the work of many community volunteers. The Classroom contains a rain garden, pizza garden, herb garden and a pond which students built in 1990 and which is now maintained by the Austin Pond Society. The Green Classroom website offers teachers science lesson plans,

PEAS photo
AdvertisementCunningham Elementary

When Cunningham Principal Ms. Lloyd first approached teacher Lauren Maples with the idea to start a garden less than four years ago, she probably had no idea the project would turn into a 2,400-foot farm, an outdoor science lab and a hub for community events, including cooking lessons from local chefs. In 2011, Maples spearheaded a successful Kickstarter campaign to provide $5,000 in seed money (pun intended) to get things started at the PEAS (which stands for Partners in Education, Agriculture and Sustainability) Community Farm, and now about 30 families reap the fruits of the community’s labors.

Members pay a $40 annual fee ($30 if you are Cunningham faculty/staff) and are invited to workdays the first and third Saturdays of the month. Although many of the participants are connected with the school, some whose children have moved on to other schools still come back to be a part of the garden. Unlike most community gardens, in which each member farms a small plot of land, at PEAS, all members work the same land and share the harvest. That way, families don’t have to miss out on the harvest if they can’t participate in each work day.

Teachers use the farm to showcase topics such as changes in matter and composting, and the gardening club, made up of mostly 4th graders, works after school at the farm. The farm just got its first rain tank, and is looking into installing solar panels to power blenders during cooking lessons. Interest in the farm is higher than ever, with the influx of new students each year, and Lauren hopes to open a once a month farm stand to get even more of the peppers, broccoli, cabbage, oregano, zucchini, brussel sprouts, kale, radishes, beets and other fresh food in the hands of the growing PEAS community. The next farm day and cooking lesson is taking place on Friday, October 18th from 10am-1pm.

Kealing Middle School

At Kealing Middle School, seventh grade science and gardening teacher, Lucinda Pogue, started a garden with the help of parent volunteers, sponsors and students. Students who take the Gardening class split time between a Reduce, Reuse and Recycle curriculum furnished by EcoRise and time out in the garden. Students plant, weed, water and harvest their own produce. Culinary arts classes also share the bounty, which is then cooked once or twice per semester and given back to the gardening students so they get a chance to eat what they have grown. According to Pogue, “the students seem to enjoy it because they get to try new foods. Most are adventurous to try it.” Each May, the garden hosts a Picnic Party, complete with cooking demos and workshops on gardening and composting. Right now, students are readying a community garden and getting plots ready for a winter garden.

Magellan International School

Patricia’s Lunchbox, founded by Patricia Bauer-Slate, formerly of Sweetish Hill, provides school lunches for Magellan International School, which is a private primary and middle school which provides Spanish and Mandarin instruction. Patricia’s Lunchbox prepares meals from scratch without preservatives, artificial sweeteners and artificial colorings. Among the company’s vendors is Bastrop Cattle Company, which provides organic, free-range, non-GMO meat.

Rawson Sanders

Rawson Sanders is a private school in central Austin which was established to provide a full curriculum for children with dyslexia. The school has received wide acclaim for its school lunch program, which is managed by Chef Jeremy Barnwell through Barnison Catering. Some of the fresh, local, organic ingredients come from the school’s own garden.

Small Middle School

Small Middle School Green Tech Academy has an outdoor classroom, a greenhouse, a chicken coop, composting, recycling, water harvesting and a garden with over 300 native plant species. Every day, teachers utilize the gardens for lessons in native plants and animals, plant propagation and mimicking nature through design. About thirty seventh graders annually take a Green Growing Class, which culminates in each student becoming certified as a Junior Master Gardener. A campus CSA set up by eighth graders last semester supplied members with a dozen eggs a week, through the end of the school year. Although a majority of the compost in the cafeteria is picked up by Texas Disposal Systems, three classrooms collect compostables for the gardens.

Last year, three eighth grade students completed a research project to develop a community garden. The students met with neighbors, scheduled production and help maintain the garden. Garden members purchase a plot, which covers the cost of materials to build the raised bed and to water. Members then decide how to distribute the harvest.

Wells Branch Elementary

Wells Branch Elementary, which is part of Round Rock ISD, has several initiatives in place to introduce healthy foods to students, many of which are under the auspices of the PTA’s Go Green Team. One element was aimed at improving the amount of new fruits and vegetables students chose from the cafeteria line. The Go Green Team worked closely with the district’s Nutritional Services staff and food vendor to plan monthly taste tests during P.E. classes. Every student at the school has P.E. class on Fridays, and so during class time that Friday of the month, a new vegetable or fruit was presented, kids learn about its health benefits, how to prepare and eat it and the children get a chance to give the new food a try and provide feedback. Last year, edamame, zucchini/squash “coins”, strawberries, blueberries and a vegetable medley of peas, carrots and corn were part of this Friday taste test. Not surprisingly, after children had tasted the foods, they were much more likely to select an item in the cafeteria.

In the fall of 2011, the Green Team launched another project: a school garden. Started with funding from the Sustainable Food Center and other sources, parents and staff members turned a courtyard into an outdoor classroom. All of the food produced on campus is organically grown, and the harvest is sold every Friday from February through May right after school at the school’s own Farmers Market. Older students work the stand each week, and proceeds go back into the garden. Garden students also perform taste tests when vegetables are ready, and are taught how to prepare simple salads. Green Team Co-Chair, Tara Fisher-Muñoz, observed, “Kids are more receptive to trying new foods when they have grown it themselves!”

What is your school doing to bring healthy and fresh food to our kids in schools?

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 8-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau’s words, her mission is to “suck out all the marrow of life”, or in her son’s words, to cultivate in him a love of “advenchers”.[/author_info] [/author]

About Nicole Basham 793 Articles
A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau's words, her mission is to "suck out all the marrow of life", or in her son's words, to cultivate in him a love of "advenchers".

2 Comments on Austin-Area Schools Bringing Fresh and Healthy Food to Students

  1. Glad to see we are included in your list of schools in Austin that are trying to get it right by feeding children fresh food. We have also been serving 9 years at St. Martin’s pre-school which functions as our kitchen. We also use Bastrop Cattle organic, local, grass-fed beef and a lot of local and organic veggies (a lot of them from Farm to Table.) Thanks for making parents aware of these options.

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