“For some kids, coming to school is easy. For others, school is a struggle. We want to have something that can reach them,” says South Meadow School Principal Dick Dunning. For one student at South Meadow Middle School in Peterborough, NH, coming to school was the last thing he wanted to do. But the day he got his own chicken, he said “This is the best day of my life!”
When Dick Dunning first arrived at South Meadow School, he already had a vision for how they could better use the school grounds as an educational space. From the very start he wanted to build a greenhouse on the school’s front lawn. His dream became reality in 2003, and in the following years the program blossomed into so much more.
In addition to the greenhouse, a multitude of other food and agriculture opportunities are now available on the school grounds of South Meadow Middle School. These include: vegetable gardens, a koi fish pond, bee hives, a chicken coop, an industrial composter, and herb gardens. All of these structures and programming are incorporated into not only the curriculum but also into the broader community. School administrators, teachers, and staff are constantly looking for new and different ways to utilize the infrastructure they have created to enhance food and farming both within the school and throughout the community.
From the very beginning, the goal of the food program at South Meadow School was to provide engaging hands-on learning opportunities for students. Dick’s desire to make this happen through food and agriculture came from his own background with 4-H, Boy Scouts, and other school outdoor/natural experiences he had growing up.
To buy the materials to build the greenhouse, the school raised $58,000 through in-kind donations and grant money from foundations and trusts. Dick Dunning and Bruce Dechert, Assistant Principal at the time, assembled the greenhouse themselves—a move that saved the school a total of $26,000.
After the greenhouse came outdoor garden beds, followed by bee hives in 2004, and both an industrial size “Earth Tub” composter and a chicken coop in 2007. Apart from the greenhouse, the “Earth Tub” was one of the greatest expenses thus far ($10,000) and these funds came from a grant through the Walker Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.
Up and Running
During the summer months when school is out of session, South Meadow School partners with the Cornucopia Project’s summer camps to help maintain and enhance the school’s outdoor garden beds. The Friendly Farm in Dublin, also partners with the school by providing a summer home for the school’s chickens.
One of the daily tasks that students are a part of at school is to take classroom food waste and scraps out to the “Earth Tub” composter. Food service staff also contribute food waste from the cafeteria to this giant compost system that can hold hundreds of pounds of food material to create compost that is added to the gardens.
Teachers use the onsite facilities for various lessons and class projects throughout the year. Food and agriculture is also intentionally incorporated into classroom curriculum throughout a student’s time at South Meadow School, staring in 5th grade when students complete a biosphere activity.
To raise funds for the school’s new infrastructure, Dick Dunning thinks outside the box and uses the schools existing resources in new ways. One of his most successful fundraising events has been to invite the community to the school’s gymnasium for an evening of roller-skating.
Hurdles to Overcome
While South Meadow School was fortunate enough to have administrative support from the very beginning, there were still a number of challenges that had to be addressed to get the program where it is today. Dick points out that building codes and other legalities must be dealt with before moving forward. Also, while South Meadow was fortunate enough to already have the support of their principal, Dick found that at times there was a lack of vision or initiative among staff.
Planning for the Future
Dick Dunning is still dreaming about ways that the program can expand in the future. Some day, he envisions having an entire farm on-site at the school, with a barn and small animals where students can learn about and more deeply connect with food and agriculture. He also hopes that someday the school will be able to sell the koi they raise to local residents.
Beyond looking at improvements that they can make to the school facilities and programs, Dick is also interested in reaching out and making a deeper connection to the community. He wonders, “What other community needs can [South Meadow School] fill?”
Advice for Others
For other schools that are interested in starting similar food and agriculture programming, Dick Dunning offers the following advice:
- Get administrative support before you begin.
- Network and partner with local organizations and resources.
- Involve students—they are the bottom line!
- Don’t be afraid to take risks.
- Get commitment from teachers. Identify their needs and help them meet their needs through the program.
- Try to fill a niche within the community.