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(RockCounty, WI) By Ian Gronau, Stateline News

For the past several months, and for the next few to come, the partnership between AmeriCorps, the Rock County UW-Extension and the Farm to School, or F2S program, is ramping up its efforts in the Stateline.

The F2S program is a national initiative encouraging nutrition education, school gardens and access to local food through partnerships with local farmers. F2S provides a variety of benefits to students, parents, schools, communities and food producers.

The University of Wisconsin-Extension Rock County currently is at work upping the local profile in the program. A recent grant enabled UW-Extension to hire on two new AmeriCorps service members to help incorporate programs in Rock County schools.

According to Christy Marsden, UW-Extension horticulture educator, the new staff will enable the program to get more agriculture information into classrooms.

"There are still some schools in the county that we haven’t worked a whole lot with yet and we are hoping to get educators into more classrooms," Marsden said. "In the future we are really hoping to increase the impact of the programs we have going."

While the recent push toward spreading the initiative’s influence includes adding new services, there also is a large focus on improving and supporting the work that already has been accomplished in the community.

"We’ve had a lot of success supporting local schools with what they are currently working on," Marsden said. "The Merrill Elementary School (in Beloit) garden is a great example."

Last year the UW-Extension was able to provide a grant that enabled them to rebuild and improve their existing garden beds. One of Merrill’s third-grade teachers, Kim Woodkey, is in charge of running the garden, and she’s been happy with how it has progressed.

"We started with just two 4-by-12 garden beds in the beginning," Woodkey said. "Three years ago we upgraded to six beds, and last year, through the use of a grant, we were able to rebuild them. The wood that we use only lasts for so long, so while rebuilding them we made them even more beautiful and raised them up to about 2 feet from the ground."

Initially, Woodkey admits to not knowing quite what to expect from her student gardeners -- at times it’s tricky to keep the attention of 9-year-olds, but she was pleasantly surprised how well they took to it.

"I was concerned with what sort of response I might get, but I have never seen harder working kids than when we work in the garden," Woodkey said. "We parade down there with wheelbarrows and garden tools and they get dirty and sweaty, but they just love it. Our goal is to get them to do it here but also bring it home and show their families just how easy it is to actually keep a garden, get the produce and try new things."

Marsden feels that school gardens really shine in that they are the best instructional tools for rudimentary farming skills, but they also are great for nutrition education. They even convince some students to eat certain foods they might not have otherwise.

"You’d be surprised by just how much more willing a child is to try a vegetable if he or she grew it and harvested it themselves, they’re curious about it," Marsden said.

Woodkey agrees and applauds the adventurousness of her students. But she admits that modern conventions may be a bit difficult to shake.

"They ask me for ranch dressing a lot," Woodkey laughs. "There are some vegetables that 9-year-olds aren’t interested in eating without ranch, but most kids are very adventurous and will at least try something once."

Woodkey is very excited when she sees some of her students taking it to the next level, something she feels makes the effort very much worthwhile. 

"Two years ago we had a boy who was so adamant that he went home and started his own garden in his backyard," Woodkey said. "His mom was very impressed with what he remembered and how he took care of it. He did the weeding and harvesting himself."

Up until this point, much of the produce from the garden goes to neighbors in the community or home with the children themselves, but Woodkey says if they are able to keep growing and increasing yield they may consider teaching the children how to take the goods to the farmers market for sale or introducing their own school farm stand.

Many of the local schools are at various stages of their immersion in the F2S program, but some are a bit further along.

"We have found that Edgerton middle and high school are pretty far along; they even produce food for their own cafeterias," said Marsden. "Edgerton Middle School even built their own little hoop house."

Rick Reese, Edgerton agricultural education teacher and FFA adviser at Edgerton High School, says the kids have been bringing back all kinds of produce to the school from their plots at Silverwood Park. The 300-acre park, located in Dane County, just northeast of Edgerton, actually was donated by the former business education teacher at Edgerton High School, Irene Silverwood. She donated the land to the county in 2002 when she died, leaving instructions that the land should be used for the purposes of emphasizing agricultural education and recreation.

"We get the students out to Silverwood Park as much as we can," said Reese. "We actually are producing food for the school kitchen. The kids grow cabbage, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, potatoes, spinach, radishes, broccoli and cauliflower to name a few."

Supporters of the F2S program are anxious to see how it will grow and develop. As part of the recent push to gain exposure, the Rock County UW-Extension has several upcoming community events planned: Informational booths at the Janesville Farmers Market on Oct. 11, the Shop Local Expo on Nov. 1 at the Pontiac Convention Center in Janesville, as well as participation in Food Day and the Great Lakes Apple Crunch on Oct. 24.

Also, as the efforts ramp up, there will be a number of Rock County schools, who aren’t already, participating in nutrition education, building school gardens and the procurement of local foods.

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