If you’re searching for the definition of seed money, look no further than Coon Rapids-Bayard and Decorah Community school districts. Both schools took advantage of a $2,000 USDA sub-grant through the Grow It, Eat It program this past spring and sparked outstanding results, strengthening connections between agriculture education and nutrition programs and supporting high-quality student engagement.

At Coon Rapids-Bayard, high school students in the horticulture class and FFA used the $2,000 to expand their greenhouse grow tower initiative. They had recently started 10 grow towers, which are vertical garden planters that allow plants to grow indoors, at their high school to plant and harvest different types of produce throughout the spring and summer. Through the Grow It, Eat It sub-grant, the students purchased an additional grow tower to place in the elementary school, which got younger kids excited about the growing process.

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“The elementary kids were definitely fascinated by the grow tower,” said Chance Schultes, 17, senior at Coon Rapids-Bayard. “It helped show them where their food comes from and how it can grow in a tower.”

The high school students planted Romaine and buttercrunch lettuce and kale in the grow tower at the elementary school. They were responsible for all aspects of the grow tower, including planning, planting, watering, harvesting and selling the produce to the school nutrition team to use in school meals.

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“This project teaches more than just growing produce,” said Melanee Petersen, horticulture educator and FFA adviser at Coon Rapids-Bayard. “Students have developed their leadership, problem-solving, communication, accounting and other skills through this initiative.”

Provided through the 2022 USDA Farm to School grant, the Grow It, Eat It funding opportunity supplied a total of 11 Iowa schools with grant awards to strengthen the partnerships between school agriculture and school nutrition. Schools were able to use the funding between March and October 2023 to purchase small gardening equipment, supplies, seed or food preparation equipment.

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“The Grow It, Eat It sub-grant was truly seed money,” said Meg Collins, education program consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “It was wonderful to see the awardees creatively plan initiatives to either start a new gardening program or enhance a current one and take steps to keep them going for years to come.”

At Decorah High School, the horticulture and environmental science classes teamed up to enhance their greenhouse efforts and repair two cedar beds. The Grow It, Eat It funding helped replace the cedar with heartier landscaping stone and convert the garden bed into a shallower plot. And although the rebuild took over most of the growing season this past spring and summer, the team is looking forward to using it next year.

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“There are plans for flowers, basil, peppers and more,” said Chad Elliott, nutrition director at Decorah. “It’s always great to have basil that we can process and puree with oil. We freeze it and use it throughout the year for school meals in things like herb potatoes, tomato soup and bread.”

Elliott frequently partners with the horticulture and environmental science teachers, Tim Hayes and Brad Johansen, each year on how to incorporate the produce from the greenhouse into school meals, and the harvest from the new beds will certainly be included in upcoming discussions.

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“We get together during the year to see what we need to do,” Elliott said. “We have had many things on the menu that have been grown, watered and harvested by students. Arugula, tomatoes, melon, garlic and apples and pears from our orchard have all been included in our school meals. It’s been a great partnership.”

Although the funding period for the Grow It, Eat It sub-grants has closed, these featured projects at Coon Rapids-Bayard and Decorah are sustainable and will help teach future generations of students about the growing process and healthy eating.

“It’s good to provide this opportunity for students,” Petersen said. “They’ll be more knowledgeable about their food and may eat better because of it.”

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