Cary Peterson has been rocking her soil-stained hands for the last three decades. In 2009, she helped the Good Cheer Food Bank start a garden to grow vegetables for food bank clients. “It was really transformative for the community right after the crash,” she explains. Being able to provide fresh, organic produce to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it was super important to both Peterson and the community. She worked closely with the foodbank over the next six years, experiencing firsthand “how important nourishing people is.”
Then she began to help local elementary and high schools develop their own gardens and witnessed the same experience with kids. Watching them eat and appreciate fresh vegetables was inspirational. So much so that Peterson transitioned from her work with the food bank to working full-time with the South Whidbey School District to establish its farm program in 2013.
Not only does South Whidbey’s Farm Program provide “fabulous educational opportunities” for its students — learning science through farming and teaching kids where their food comes from — but the program negotiated food safety protocols with Chartwells, a corporate food service provider, to be able to sell them school grown produce.
In 2014 the South Whidbey School District was the first school in the nation to deliver school grown produce to Chartwells for use in their school lunches. The school farm continues to be an important supplier of fresh veggies to the cafeteria.
“We put in a big half acre garden and discovered that, not only was it great to deliver produce for the school lunches, but the kids completely fell in love with fresh-picked veggies!” Peterson says. “In an operation our size, you can really grow a lot of food for kids. Many school gardens are restrained by size. We are able to grow enough to feed 600 kids per week.”
The South Whidbey School Farm is located a minute’s walk from the Elementary School and teaches weekly farm classes. There is also a culinary program and, pre-pandemic, the farm hosted a big Harvest Feast. They also provide produce for Whidbey Island Nourishes, which has a Snack Program at the Elementary School that provides fresh veggies and fruit and delivers fresh and healthy, ready-to-eat meals to students, families and underserved community members. Plus, there will be a High School Farm stand launching this fall.
The maritime climate of South Whidbey Island, located just off the coast of Washington State, grants them mild winters where crops can grow almost year round, allowing for two production peaks timed for when the students are at school. The South Whidbey School Farm grows lots of spring veggies to eat through June, including favorites such as peas, kale, lettuce, carrots and bok choy. Then the farm is planted for the students’ return in September. In the fall, they pick all of those “warm weather crops,” including classic veggies like tomatoes, cucumbers and beans — plus some more curious items that the kids enjoy, such as ground cherries and mouse melons. They also work a lot with seeds, seed saving and exploring various types of flowers.
“There are just so many things kids love learning about the farm,” says Peterson. “They start in kindergarten, running around the farm and becoming familiar with soil, pollinators, worm bins, beans and flowers. They go on to learn about the biology of life, living, earth, the cycles of the sun, growing and eating plants, environmental awareness and nature awareness. The kids are taught developmentally as they get older. It might be the same lesson over the course of different years at varying developmental levels.”
The school farm creates an environment where the kids can explore engaged, embodied learning. “They’re learning, but also working. So that’s how they learn: they do the task or have to examine something. For example, we’ve got all of these beans in different stages and sizes. The kids can pull them apart and study them. Natural exploration is a great way to learn,” Peterson explains.
This farm system is effectively providing lots of food and providing valuable nutrition to its local youth and surrounding community, but there was one issue. They needed more cold storage. The little walk-in cooler they shared with the school was overflowing with harvest bins — an admittedly great problem to have! The South Whidbey School Farms needed a cold storage solution.
Peterson had been “kicking around long enough” in the agriculture scene that she was familiar with CoolBot, having seen it operating at other farms and gardens. “We hadn’t realized there was a turn-key walk in cooler option available. We thought we’d have to retrofit a shipping container, which was beyond our capacity. When I discovered the turn-key walk-in cooler that was clean and new and out of the box, I was so thrilled and got the ball rolling,” explains Peterson.
South Whidbey School acquired grants from the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and also from Goosefoot, “this really fantastic, visionary local nonprofit” who has contributed funding to many community projects over the last twenty years. Goosefoot had helped South Whidbey School Farms raise over $250K over the last five years alone to help them launch and become the full service farm that they are today. These grants helped South Whidbey School to purchase the CoolBot turn-key walk-in cooler, shelving and pay for the electrical installation.
Because school programs have extremely strict sanitation standards, South Whidbey School needed something “new, fresh and sharp,” according to Peterson. “CoolBot was perfect for that. We can bring in produce and keep it super organized for distribution. We’re able to manage our produce in a way we couldn’t before. How did we live without this?! We’re all super, super happy — not just with how it’s working — but also with how it allows us to manage our harvest in a much better way. It was too crowded before, and now we’re got so much capacity. It’s wonderful.”
Prior to their CoolBot install, the South Whidbey School farmers were having to stuff their cooler with bins stacked on bins, and they ultimately “just didn’t have the capacity for that,” according to Peterson. “As soon as the food came in, we’d have to get it out. CoolBot really opened our capacity for growing and storing more food.” Now, they utilize one cooler for fruit and another for veggies, which is “an ideal situation.” Plus, the CoolBot Walk-in Cooler is located super close to the cafeteria, for easy produce transportation and access.
The one challenge South Whidbey School Farms faced with their CoolBot Walk-in Cooler install was “getting the big thing off the trailer,” according to Peterson. “You really need to plan for that. We were lucky to have a forklift on hand from the school district. And the Rotary Club of South Whidbey Island helped us put it together, bless their hearts! The Rotary Club team volunteered and they were very good and thorough. They assembled the whole unit between 9 am and 3 pm, and then came back the next day to put on the roof membrane.
Peterson and her crew of AmeriCorps volunteers are overjoyed with their new and improved capacity for cold storage, but more importantly, she sings the praises of her local community and school district who are committed to investing in the specialized program of farm-based education and nutrition. “Lots of gardens don’t have the type of support we do,” she tells us. “We’re blessed with the land behind the Elementary School, where the kids can dig, pick plants and be involved.” The South Whidbey School Farm is thrilled to have the space and resources that they do, which allows for full participation from all the students (7 classes/day, over 600 students/week).
“We are blessed by the tremendous community support,” Peterson says. “People really care about the well being of each other here. When you say you want to do something for the kids, people are like ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ We partner with some really good nonprofits, whose support has allowed us to slowly grow this program. Each year, we’ve added a different component. During the pandemic, we built an outdoor classroom. We raised $25K in just a few months and then volunteers built it in just eight weeks — and it is outfitted with electricity, wireless, and solar panels. It’s really fantastic.”
As South Whidbey’s School Farm has grown and evolved, all of their dreams and goals have gradually become a reality. They’ve developed a strong culinary program, snack program and various partnerships within their community to help those in need. “The harvest storage capacity that the CoolBot gives us is another dream come true,” shares Peterson. At a time when so much seems dire, with so many schools seeing budget cuts and the like, we’re proud to be able to help provide South Whidbey School’s incredible farming program with proper cold storage to teach and nourish their kids and community.