Something new is sprouting at Tioga Central Schools, and it’s not just the vegetables on five acres west of the football field. It’s a new program, based on the notion that when kids learn to eat healthy food, everyone benefits.
“We’re planting the seeds to grow stronger kids and stronger families, and thereby a stronger community,” says Nancy Eckstrom, a community volunteer who formerly served as the district’s food service coordinator. Eckstrom is part of the volunteer group behind Tiger Farm, the district’s hands-on agricultural education initiative.
Since 2016, three local farm families have come to school in the fall to prepare parts of Tiger Farm’s five-acre plot so students could plant there in the spring. Crops of potatoes, pumpkins, corn, and sunflowers have figured in the harvest festivals and agricultural fairs that followed.
“We had 200 kids planting potatoes, but we had 500 harvesting. That’s a lot of kids getting their hands dirty,” Eckstrom says. The 2017 harvest provided more than 2,000 pounds of potatoes for the school’s meal program.
The farm reinforces lessons that Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) brings to the Tioga Center Schools as part of the New York State Agriculture in the Classroom program. This program teaches students about farming while also building on core subjects such as science and math, Eckstrom says.
A grant from the Community Foundation in 2017 provided $15,000 to build a three-sided outdoor classroom for Tiger Farm, designed and constructed by technology students, plus an irrigation system.
CCE teaches gardening and sponsors community gardens in Tioga County through its Seed to Supper program. As students in Tioga Center gain expertise on Tiger Farm, might they bring home their newfound enthusiasm and skills, encouraging parents to grow their own fresh food? “That’s our hope,” Eckstrom says. “I think a year from now, we’ll be able to point to some reality there.”