Local officials tour the greenhouse at Chicopee Comprehensive High School.
Reminder Publishing photo by Tyler Garnet

CHICOPEE — Local officials, as well as members of the Chicopee Public Schools district, took a tour at Chicopee Comprehensive High School to learn about its Farm to School Program on May 2.

The visit included a tour of the campus, featuring stops at the cafeteria, the greenhouse and its compost machine before ending with lunch that showcased the fresh food from the program.

The group heard from school nutrition staff, educators and students about the work they are doing to provide students and families access to healthy, local foods and hands-on, garden based learning.

MA Food for MA Kids is a statewide advocacy coalition focused on supporting schools to increase the use of local food in school meals and provide experiential food education to students.

The coalition is currently focused on establishing a permanent farm to school grant program within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and a local food incentive program.

Chicopee Public Schools Food Service Director Melanie Wilk and Chicopee Farm to School Coordinator Brianna Jackson led the tour.

Jackson talked a little bit about ChicopeeFRESH, which started about 10 years ago.

She said, “A lot of farms are located out here, there’s tons of farmlands. One thing ChicopeeFRESH does really well is we order a lot of local food, we network with local producers, we have our own driver that either picks stuff up or brings it to other schools.”

Jackson added that Chicopee schools are trying to use more funding from different programs to continue developing the education side of farm to school.

State Sen. Jake Oliveria (D-Ludlow) said that out of all the districts he represents, only two utilize this program.
Jackson talked about her role and how much she likes it.

“I didn’t know this job existed before I came here. I wanted to work in schools — I really like local food, I really like gardening, I really like working with kids — I don’t know if I want to be a teacher and I had pretty much laid out what my job was. It’s definitely come a long way since then. We received a grant to kind of start grant funding some of the roles that we have at the administration and that’s now turned into our school having a full time farm to school coordinator. Which is pretty rare for this state,” Jackson said.

The collaboration between local producers and the school has been beneficial, according to Wilk, including the meal for May 2, which was seasoned potato wedges and root vegetable medley from Joe Czajkowski Farm in Hadley.

“Those are amazing. We love Joe because he is able to process the food a little bit. We get the potatoes in wedges so our staff doesn’t have to get 50 pounds of potatoes and then cut them into wedges. The same thing with the veggie medley — it’s already cut in little ripple pieces,” Wilk said.

Wilk also gave a lot of credit to the cafeteria staff who make over 700 meals each day.

She added, “It’s not like just throwing a chicken patty on a pan, it’s a little bit more work and they work so, so hard and I really do have the most dedicated staff throughout all of the schools. I throw new recipes at them all the time and they roll with. They are amazing.”

All 15 schools in the district have their own kitchen so there is no outside food service management company and each school prepares food separately.

Career and Technical Education Director Carl Ingram said with the school, it focuses on 10 career and technical areas. For the Horticulture Program, students are taught multiple skills including greenhouse management, landscaping, construction, maintenance and more.

Ingram said, “Our horticulture kids have a pretty diverse curriculum. It’s not just the greenhouse management part, it’s not the building landscape architecture, it’s not just the floriculture, it’s a combination of all that.”
Horticulture teachers Jonathan Duff and Brendan Myers talked a little about their program and what they are trying to teach their students.

Jackson and Wilk are still working on applying for grants and have formed a Farm to School Committee within the district to work on adding more of the farming curriculum to the school.

Jackson had a message to all the members of the group who are looking to help or implement this programs in other schools in their district.

She said, “Having a lot of conversations, making partnerships, the more networking we do the more we can help each other and offer some services and do something great for the community.”

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