Farm to School in Rural Louisiana Restores Local Food Connections

Rory Gresham leads a tour of the Richland Parish School Board hydroponic growing system.  (Photo credit: Jason Van Haverbeke)

Rory Gresham leads a tour of the Richland Parish School Board hydroponic growing system. 
(Photo credit: Jason Van Haverbeke)

In the transnational push for more sustainable local food systems, rural communities face unique challenges that city-centric conversation can fail to capture. Across Louisiana, rural parishes are finding innovative, collaborative ways to revitalize local food economies that can often feel disinvested from the community. Leading this movement to stimulate local food systems, local schools are working together to share resources, offer encouragement, and build rich conversations around the state of farm to school in Louisiana.

With support from Seed Change, a National Farm to School Network initiative aimed at expanding farm to school activities at the state and community levels, and the Louisiana Farm to School Alliance, a statewide network of organizations working in food, farming, nutrition and education, schools across the state are bringing fresh, healthy food into cafeterias and increasing food and agricultural literacy in the classroom. 

A look at three different rural Seed Change Louisiana sites offers a glimpse into how dedicated educators, administrators and growers are finding fresh ways to restore connection and inspire growth through school food. 

Richland Parish School Board

Since the beginning of 2016, Richland Parish School Board’s greenhouse has supplied their Food Service Department with more than 4,200 heads of lettuce to be served in the district’s twelve schools. This is particularly impressive considering the greenhouse is only 20x48 feet – or roughly the size of two adjacent school buses. Serving as a Seed Change Demonstration Site in northeast Louisiana, Richland Parish School Board invested its Seed Change grant funding into building the greenhouse along with the high-efficiency hydroponic growing system it houses, both of which were economically designed and hand-built by Rory Gresham and his team. Gresham, who continues to manage the project, has noticed a considerable increase in the amount of greens the students are eating. “It’s amazing how many students come up and tell me that they didn’t know lettuce had a taste,” he says. Far beyond the cafeteria, Richland’s hydroponic greenhouse is having an impact across the region. Gresham regularly hosts visitors from throughout the south who are eager to replicate this innovative system in their own school districts and communities. With a professional internship program in partnership with the local university slated to begin next year, Richland may well have a hand in producing a new crop of Louisiana farmers along with its lettuce and tomatoes. “Most of our farms here are corn, cotton and soybean production and they’re thousand acre setups,” he notes. Gresham sees midsize greenhouse production systems like Richland’s as a way for young farmers and students interested in growing diversified crops to break into the burgeoning market for fresh, local produce.

Northwest High School, Opelousas

Cody Manuel, agriculture teacher at Northwest High School and Seed Change Louisiana mini-grantee, often views his classes as a hands-on course in communication skills. “How to accept constructive criticism, how to work together, how to communicate,” he says, all things he feels have been lost in our modern tech world, but are also foundational to any career in agriculture. In recent years, Manuel has incorporated a number of on-site raised beds as well as a small-scale hydroponic growing system into his curriculum, with hopes for an expansion inspired by a Seed Change training hosted by Richland Parish School Board. Manuel says that he’s noticed a niche market emerging for high quality, locally grown crops, and students in his classes have taken note. This is a welcome shift from the trend of recent decades toward mechanized, monoculture farms. Manuel hopes Northwest’s farm to school program will instill students with both the technical and interpersonal skills they need to be able to break into sustainable farming. “Those that enjoy growing things and see there’s money to be made in it, they’ll pursue it. I think it’s going that way, it’s not just a trend.”

LaSalle Parish School District

Photo Credit: LaSalle Parish School Board

Photo Credit: LaSalle Parish School Board

When Kelly Thompson, Child Nutrition Supervisor at LaSalle Parish School District and seasoned backyard gardener, learned of a nearby school incorporating gardening into their curriculum, she jumped at the chance to launch a similar program in LaSalle Parish. “I thought, what a great way to show students where their food is coming from.” In the past few months, Thompson and local volunteers have installed raised beds in four of LaSalle Parish’s schools with support and funding from Louisiana Seed Change as another of the program’s mini-grantees. Already, she and the teachers have noticed an impact on the students. “They’re having so much fun and smiling. Even their behavior has changed, with a new peace and calmness.” Beyond benefiting the students, the gardens have garnered the attention and support of grandparents, many of whom are lifelong growers. With the help of these knowledgeable local gardeners, LaSalle Parish is working to restore the community’s intergenerational knowledge of the land, teaching the parish’s littlest learners how to grow.

Funding and support provided by Seed Change has sparked an upwelling of new opportunities for farm to school projects across the region. Katie Mularz, Executive Director for the Louisiana Farm to School Alliance and Seed Change State Coordinator said, “Even modest farm to school funding supports schools to be innovative agents of change—leading the way to healthier, more sustainable systems while addressing community needs and inspiring youth to see a brighter future.”

Learn more about the National Farm to School Network’s Seed Change initiative and how we’re growing farm to school state by state here.

Seed Change in Kentucky, Louisiana and Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Walmart Foundation, which shares the National Farm to School Network’s commitment to improving child and community healthy through innovative partnerships.