Pacific High School receives USDA Farm To School grant for edible garden

RAISED EXPECTATIONS – Pacific High School ninth-grade student Henrey Ward brushes dirt from a garlic bulb he pulled Monday morning (Aug. 30, 2021) from raised garden beds behind the building. Dozens of students from the school picked garlic, rhubarb, potatoes and other vegetables, as well as gathered berries and pruned trees, while the school body took advantage of fair weather to harvest crops and winterize their campus. (Daily Sitka Sentinel Photo by Reber Stein, used with permission) Bottom photo is Pacific High School students planting garlic (Photo Courtesy of Mandy Summer).

The Sitka School District’s Pacific High School is one of two schools in Alaska to receive a Farm To School (F2S) grant from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. The grant is for $50,000 and will be used to improve Pacific High School’s edible garden.

The USDA Farm To School grant program in 2021-22 will support 176 grant-winners from around the country, serving 6,800 schools and more than 1.4 million students. The other Alaska site to receive a grant was the Cordova School District, through its nonprofit partner the Copper Valley Watershed Project.

According to the USDA’s list of Farm to School grants and their project descriptions, “The Pacific High School (PHS) Edible Garden project will support the installation of an edible garden, adjacent to both PHS and Baranof Elementary School (BES). PHS is a school of choice, serving high-needs students who have been underserved in the traditional system, and BES serves all of the district’s grades K-1 students. The edible garden will be used as an experiential outdoor classroom and integrated into both schools’ curriculum. Food produced will supply the Pacific High School meal program and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska summer meal program, in addition to being consumed as part of school and partner agency learning experiences.”

Pacific High School principal Mandy Summer said the grant will be used in several ways.

“The F2S grant is a total of $50,000 of funding for one year which we intend to use to hire a school gardener,” Summer wrote in an email. “This person will be responsible for overall planning and maintenance of the school garden, organizing a PHS garden committee, creating a sustainability plan that will address future maintenance needs, and developing curricular resources to assist teachers (PHS and Baranof) in leading garden experiences with their students.  Until now, PHS has not had a staff member solely dedicated to working in the garden and developing garden resources and activities, which has slowed the growth of our Farm to Table program. It is our hope that the funding provided though the Farm to School grant will provide the means for us to grow produce year-round for our school breakfast and lunch program, and expand curricular resources to enable more students to have learning experiences in the garden.”

When she was a teacher at the school, before she was promoted to principal, Summer helped create the school garden a decade ago. In recent years, Pacific High School hosted MOBY the Mobile Greenhouse (a portable greenhouse built on a trailer that travels to different communities around Southeast Alaska) and the Pacific Planters school garden club sold plant starts this spring.

“Pacific High has been teaching gardening classes for 10 years now and expanding our garden space behind the school for six,” Summer wrote. “This grant will involve Baranof through the development of elementary-aged curricular resources by the school gardener, in partnership with teachers from Baranof who are interested in getting their students out in the garden. We purchased a 24×48 (foot) greenhouse last year with funding from a partnership grant with Sitka Tribe of Alaska. However before we can put the greenhouse up, we need to excavate for the foundation, level the site, and put in some French drains. This is estimated to cost approximately $25,000, which we will do (through) a fundraising campaign for this fall.”

Moby the Mobile Greenhouse to spend rest of year at Pacific High School in Sitka

Pacific High School gardening class teacher Maggie Gallin, center right facing camera, shows Moby the Mobile Greenhouse to her students during Friday’s class.

During the Pacific High School gardening class last Friday (Feb. 15), school social worker Maggie Gallin, who teaches the class, was showing the students around Moby the Mobile Greenhouse when she asked the students to visualize what they wanted to grow in the greenhouse this year. Moby arrived in Sitka earlier in the week, just in time for the Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit.

The students already have raised garden beds outside the school where they grow more traditional food crops for Sitka, such as lettuce, kale, potatoes, carrots, etc. So the students were a bit more daring in their choices.

George wants to try growing citrus. Hannah wants to grow peppers, Doug wants to grow bell peppers, while Karl and Jayvan want to try growing corn. These are crops that need a greenhouse to grow in Sitka, and they won’t grow well outside. Our climate isn’t hot enough.

“Our culinary program is really strong,” Gallin said. “But we have a garden program and a subsistence program that we want to get stronger. This will be a mini-learning lab for us on a small scale, and the students want to experiment.”

Pacific High School gardening class students discuss what crops they want to grow in the garden beds inside Moby the Mobile Greenhouse.

Pacific High School is Sitka’s alternative high school, which promotes different styles of learning and more personal attention. Principal Mandy Summer, who taught gardening classes before she became principal, said the school built its first raised garden bed in 2010 after Phil Burdick’s English class read the Paul Fleischman novel Whirligig, and the garden bed served as a place to put the whirligigs the class made where they could catch the wind. To supplement the novel, the class read articles about how to grow plants.

Over time the project grew into two classes, including one on how to build things such as more garden beds, a composter, a sifter and other items for the garden. There now are about a half-dozen raised garden beds behind the school.

The addition of Moby the Mobile Greenhouse will elevate the garden class project at Pacific High School. Moby the Mobile Greenhouse is a tiny house greenhouse project that travels to different schools in Southeast Alaska by Grow Southeast in partnership with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Spruce Root and the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition. It was built with support from the University of Alaska Southeast, the Juneau School District, the Nature Conservancy and the Sitka Conservation Society. Before coming to Sitka, Moby spent a year each in Kake, Hoonah and Yakutat.

“Our (Pacific High’s) theme this year is growth and legacy, and Moby fits our theme,” Gallin said. “The students will be leaving something behind, and they’ll be contributing something that’s individually fulfilling.”

Moby is the size of a tiny house, and it can be pulled behind a pick-up truck. There are six small garden beds inside about waist height (three on each side), plus there are places for hanging baskets. In addition, there are rain gutters to catch rainwater to use in the garden beds. The program’s link includes a handout about Moby and a downloadable curriculum for the teachers to use.

The Pacific High School garden program already has several student-built raised garden beds, a composter, a sifter, and a small older greenhouse (from a kit) behind the school.

“Part of having Moby here is for our partnership with Baranof Elementary School, where our kids can be mentors,” Summer said, adding that in time the school hopes to grow enough food for the school lunches at both Pacific High and Baranof Elementary. There is a plot of land behind the school where Summer, Gallin and others at the school are hoping to expand the garden program, and that includes having a greenhouse or high tunnel to extend the garden season. “The plan is to have a more permanent structure.”

“Moby the Mobile Greenhouse travels to a different rural Southeast Alaska community, each growing season to kickstart interest in growing local produce, especially among young people,” said Jennifer Nu, a local foods director for the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition and a community food sustainability catalyst for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. “We hope that the greenhouse inspires a new wave of vegetable gardeners, builders, local food system advocates in Sitka and beyond. Pacific High School was chosen for strong leadership, commitment to hands-on, place-based, project-centered learning that also has wellness and community at the heart of its mission. Students at Pacific High will share their learning experience with children at Baranof Elementary school and possibly students even younger. Moby will mobilize a longer-term vision as a local food system learning center for educators around the region.”

Pacific High School garden class students and class teacher Maggie Gallin (in stocking cap with back to camera) check out Moby the Mobile Greenhouse during their class on Friday, Feb. 15.

Pacific will have Moby through October, when the garden season ends. The students will still work through the summer, even though school won’t be in session. While Moby is in Sitka, the students discussed dressing up the mobile greenhouse with Native formline drawings.

“I’m excited for more fresh produce in lunch, and working with kids,” sophomore Melissa Gibson said.

“I want to grow stuff and take care of it,” sophomore George Stevenson added.

While in Sitka, Claire Sanchez of the Sitka Spruce Tips 4-H program will work with Gallin. There also will be other gardeners who might help with the class. The staff at Pacific hopes having Moby in Sitka will encourage more people in town to garden.

“One of the stats Sustainable Southeast Partnership wants us to track is how many gardens are inspired by Moby,” Gallin said.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.