Healthy Schools

Denver school farms help stock cafeterias

Half a dozen workers crouched in the field mounding hay around organic bell pepper and zucchini plants as the morning sun beat down on a recent summer day.

Vitto Moscoso, who is going into 11th grade, works at the farm at Bradley International School.
Vitto Moscoso, who is going into 11th grade, works at the farm at Bradley International School.

With their work boots, gloves and brimmed hats, they looked a lot like farmers anywhere else in the Colorado’s rural expanse. The difference is these workers were toiling away on a one-acre plot at Bradley International School in southwest Denver, their shovels and wheelbarrows a hundred feet away from the school’s bright yellow swing set.

The farm, one of three on Denver Public Schools grounds, is part of the district’s pilot farm-to-school program, which converts unused school land into working farms that produce tens of thousands of pounds of produce for school cafeterias. In addition to the farm at Bradley, which was established in 2012, there are farms at Schmitt Elementary and Denver Green School. There’s also a farm at McGlone Elementary School, but it’s on hiatus this summer while construction occurs there.

“This is the beginning,” Anne Wilson, the district’s farm-to-school coordinator, said of the district’s recent plunge into urban agriculture. “Certainly, we hope to look at doing more sites in the future.”

School farms rare

The DPS school farm project appears to be one of the first of its kind, at least in Colorado. Jeremy West, nutrition service director for Weld County District 6 and chairman of the Colorado Farm to School Task Force, said he’s not aware of other districts that have similar programs.

The farm at Bradley is not far from the school playground.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The farm at Bradley is not far from the school playground.

“I would say they’re pretty unique,” said West. “I think they’re…on the forefront of having urban farming on their property.”

While over 60 Colorado schools or districts have some type of farm-to-school initiative, he said, it often takes the form of buying fruits and vegetables from local growers, not raising hundreds of tons of produce at the schools themselves.

While not quite on the scale of Denver’s farm program, Colorado Springs District 11 does grow about 1,500 pounds of produce a year, including lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, squash, spinach and herbs in a greenhouse and five raised beds at Galileo School of Math and Science. The produce is used at Galileo as well as cafeterias throughout the district.

In DPS, the school farms are not to be confused with school gardens, which exist at many Denver schools, including Bradley. While the smaller-scale gardens may contribute some produce to school salad bars, they are typically more of an educational tool with school and community volunteers responsible for their upkeep.

The farms, by contrast, are focused on production with contractors in charge of their operation and extensive protocols for food safety.

Produce Denver, an urban agriculture company, is the contractor at Bradley and Schmitt, as well as three non-school sites in Denver, including the Colorado Convention Center. This year, the two school farms are expected to yield about 1,000 pounds of tomatoes and bell peppers a week, 600 pounds of cucumbers and 400 pounds of zucchini a week from late August to late October. The zucchini and bell pepper crop will completely satisfy the district’s weekly needs during that period. The tomatoes will satisfy only about one-third of the district’s weekly needs and the cucumbers only one-fifth.

Denver Green School, which partners with Sprout City Farms to run its one-acre vegetable and herb farm, doesn’t contribute its 11,000-pound annual produce yield for districtwide cafeteria use. However, about half of that is used to cover most of the school’s vegetable needs during the fall. The other half is sold at the school’s farm stand, used in its community-supported agriculture program or donated to emergency food programs.

Gardens gave birth to farms

Many Denver elementary schools built gardens on their campuses through the Learning Landscape Initiative, funded with private and bond money over the past 13 years. At schools like Bradley, Schmitt and McGlone, there was enough unused space to consider bigger plots as well. At Bradley, for example, the school garden adjacent to the playground was green and thriving, but the northeast corner of the school’s property was empty save for a layer of pea gravel and an unused backstop.

“It was a prison yard,” said Alethea McClure, a health paraprofessional at the school and regular garden volunteer. “It was horrible,”

The school garden at Bradley is next to the school's farm.
The school garden at Bradley is next to the school’s farm.

Wilson said, “What started us on working with the farms and bringing the food into cafeterias was school gardens. We had these beautiful school gardens producing all this fabulous produce…We sat down and came up with a protocol that would address the food safety concerns.”

Wilson said Slow Food Denver, a non-profit that promotes local and sustainable foods, helped develop that protocol and has been a key partner in the farm project.

Students now get to experience the growing process first hand in the school’s garden, and see the larger-scale farm operation unfold a stone’s throw away. To Wilson and McClure, the garden and farm are natural companions.

McClure, who has two daughters attending Bradley, said it’s important “for our kids to see that…food comes from somewhere. It doesn’t come from a truck.”

She added, “They’re so proud because in our salad bar…they know there’s a chance it was grown here.”

Grade-schoolers aren’t the only ones who see the farm-to-school process for themselves. Several Denver area teens are paid to work at the Bradley and Schmitt farms through an organization that partners with Produce Denver. It’s called Groundworks Denver and focuses on making urban environmental improvements.

Vitto Moscoso, who is going into 11th grade at Career Education Center Middle College of Denver, took a break from his work in a row of zucchini plants to talk about his farm job.

“I like working outdoors,” he said. It’s also nice “knowing it’s going to the schools.”

Future DPS farms

District leaders already know there’s room for more school farms in Denver. Wilson said a study funded by the Colorado Health Foundation a couple years found that there were about 18 acres of farmable land in the district at the time.

The farm at Bradley sits on an acre in the back corner of the campus.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The farm at Bradley sits on an acre in the back corner of the campus.

“There’s acres and acres of land that isn’t needed, that’s maybe either pea gravel or turf that isn’t being used by the kids and isn’t being used for athletics,” said Wilson.

Still, vacant land and the demand for produce in the 84,000-student district aren’t the only variables in the equation. There’s also the cost of setting up new irrigation systems, buying seeds and paying for labor.

“There is an upfront cost and that’s why we’re not doing 18 acres tomorrow,” said Wilson.

She said it’s too early in the farm project to determine if harvesting produce from campus farms save the district money.

“We’ll be better able to answer that question in a few years,” she said. “Certainly, we want to make sure it’s financially sustainable over the long haul.”

Future school building expansion is another factor that may affect the long-term trajectory of the farm project, potentially eating into the acreage identified in the Colorado Health Foundation study.

A nearly $100,000 grant recently awarded to the district by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will help the district map out its farming future. In addition to helping create a strategic plan, the grant will fund additional food safety initiatives, consultations about future farm sites as well as menu-planning and recipe-testing efforts.

Wilson said until the district creates more farmland, the food service department will have to supplement district-grown crops like tomatoes and cucumbers with produce from vendors.

Even so, she said, “It’s exciting because it still will reach all the schools we service.”

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year


A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.