Education Matters: Harvesting food awareness in Encinitas

People talk about the need to teach future generations about the environment, conservation and food justice. But most schools are doing little more to educate kids to the growing needs of our planet than teaching from a textbook, if that.

The Encinitas Union School District is a huge exception.

Under EUSD, an endeavor called Farm Lab has become a national model for hands-on learning about bio-diversity, agriculture and environmental science.

Farm Lab, situated on 10 acres of land on Quail Gardens Drive, is an indoor/outdoor classroom setting where students see first-hand how food is produced, gain knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating, and learn about the importance of recycling and conservation.

Through project-based learning, each of the 5,400 students in the K-6 district spends time at Farm Lab to gain greater awareness of environmental science and crop production.

Calling Farm Lab “a unique learning resource for all students,” EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird said he’s aware of no other school offering this kind of program.

EUSD is the first school district in the nation to have a certified organic crop production farm supplying its school lunch programs at all nine of its schools. And Farm Lab has yielded a bountiful harvest.

Presently, only one of the 10 available acres at Farm Lab is used for crop production, and that one acre so far this school year has produced over 4,000 pounds of watermelon, 900 pounds of pumpkins, 300 heads of lettuce every week, about 200 pounds of carrots per week, and 50 pounds of broccoli.

The colorful watermelon varieties harvested included Heirloom Yellow Shipper, Red Seeded Navajo, Crimson, Sugar Baby and Ice Cream – “a delicious selection of yellow, pink and red watermelon,” said Mim Michelove, Farm Lab director.

Because of last summer’s substantial harvest, the district was able to preserve some of the crop production for this year’s school lunches.

“We are thrilled that over the summer we also grew several crates of herbs and over 5,000 pounds of tomatoes and peppers that were roasted and preserved as pizza and marinara sauce for this school year,” Michelove said.

All this organic produce finds its way into the school lunch programs via EUSD’s central kitchen at El Camino Creek Elementary School.

In addition, each of the nine schools has its own garden. At some of the schools, students are harvesting vegetables and preparing meals.

A combination of enrichment teachers, staff and parent volunteers lead sessions in the gardens on composting, seed planting, crop production, pest control, harvesting, irrigation, water conservation, recycling and other agricultural lessons.

As a result, Michelove said the children have become more savvy about nutrition and have improved their healthy eating choices.

Sustainable farming

The students don’t actually do the farming at Farm Lab.

“They don’t really dig in the dirt,” said Baird, who has been superintendent of the Encinitas Union School District for the past eight years.

“We initially tried to farm Farm Lab ourselves,” he said. “At times, we needed more workers and more equipment than we could provide. At other times, the farm work would slow down.”

He said the district decided to contract with Coastal Roots Farm, an independent organization created by the philanthropic Leichtag Foundation. Leichtag and Coastal Roots are located across the street from Farm Lab.

Coastal Roots Farm is a nonprofit community farm and education center that practices sustainable farming and provides free and reduced-price food for nearby communities.

EUSD pays Coastal Roots about $40,000 annually to farm the one acre of land that’s currently producing the district’s food.

To do the farming, Coastal Roots handles all the heavy machinery and necessary equipment, which students aren’t allowed to be near, and Coastal Roots is given a portion of the district’s land to farm for themselves.

The cost of having the land professionally farmed, Baird said, is more than offset by the savings the district realizes from growing its own food.

“I think it has been a good deal for all parties,” Baird said.

The money to run Farm Lab comes from a number of sources: Proposition P which was passed by voters in 2010, grants, donations, and the district’s general fund.

Baird said the initial cost to start the project, about $1.5 million, was high because there were no sewer lines or utilities to support the on-site portable classrooms.

Two full-time staff members are paid by the district: Michelove and a teacher on special assignment, as well as a part-time custodian.

In addition to her job on the instructional side, Michelove, who has been full-time with the district for about 18 months, also writes grant requests for Farm Lab.

Last year she said the district received nearly $170,000 in grants, donations and in-kind donations of materials and services.

“We are currently in the running for other large grants, and are just about to roll out a community fundraising campaign,” she said.

Living classroom

A portion of the 10-acre land is used for classes and instruction, making what Michelove calls a living classroom.

During my visit last month, energetic third-graders from Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary School spent the morning at nearby San Diego Botanic Garden studying biodiversity.

Then, after lunch and playtime at Farm Lab, the children regrouped in onsite classrooms to design an insect that would survive in the two diverse ecosystems they had just explored at the Botanic Garden.

Examples of diverse ecosystems might be a rainforest and the desert.

This, said Baird, is a perfect example of project-based learning.

In another example, Michelove described how first-grade students researched and designed devices to control pests without chemicals, using sound, light and motion.

The outdoor education program, she said, presents meaningful ways for kids to focus on the environment and nutrition.

When I asked how all this fits into an impacted curriculum day, Baird agreed it’s not simple but it all ties into math and science standards.

He said this type of real-world, experiential learning that focuses on design and research integrates science, math, writing and oral presentation. The district ensures that these lessons conform with state standards and actually enhance educational value through an infused curriculum.

Take, for example, the Storm Water Pollution Prevention Program.

The SWPPP, Baird said, is a program “developed in our district, and now other school districts are looking to start similar programs of their own.”

The program runs every year at all nine schools for fifth- and sixth-graders, and “it is very popular with our students,” he said.

He said students become the district’s SWPPP consultants.

“Working with adult mentors, they do everything that a paid consultant would do,” Baird explained. “They examine our storm water runoff. They review our drains, pollutants, and the pathway of water to the ocean. They work with scientists to test water samples.

“Finally, they write up a plan to improve the storm water drainage and submit it to our school board and the county board of supervisors. In the process, they learn a lot about math, science, technical writing, planning, and public speaking.”

He said EUSD recently received a large state grant for storm water pollution prevention, “so these students are now meeting with potential contractors, reviewing bidding documents, and developing plans for large scale environmental building solutions.”

It’s all about integrated learning, with activities and assignments that focus on nutrition, conservation, ecology, math, earth science, environmental science and history.

Teaching young students about the value of environmental stewardship and environmental wellness is an incalculable bonus.

End of Part One. For Part Two, next week, read about Farm Lab’s water conservation program, the food forest, the history of the land and plans for the future.

Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at