Tenacious advocacy by a former teacher and the hard manual labor of several farmers germinated the territory’s first farm-to-school-lunch program in more than 50 years, but more participation and funding is needed to provide enough locally grown food to feed school children every day.
It all began as a school project for teacher Sommer Sibilly-Brown’s students at Ricardo Richards Junior High School for the Agriculture Fair in 2012. They won third place with a plan to start school gardens and supply food to the cafeterias and produce for parents to help pay for school supplies.
“If you could make this happen, you could do so much good for your community. Whatever you do, don’t quit,” the judges told Sibilly-Brown’s students.
Gardens were started at schools “to keep the conversation going,” she said. St. Croix Educational Complex, Pearl Larsen Elementary and Gifft Hill School on St. John were some of the schools successful in raising crops.
Encouraged, they applied for a federal grant that was denied only because they were unable to demonstrate sustainability – financial support from the community, according to Sibilly-Brown.
She went to work, started a non-profit organization, the Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition, and the Farm to School Initiative. Over the next two years, she educated legislators and stakeholders about fresh food school lunch programs.
Sibilly-Brown also met with representatives from the U.S. Agriculture Department, the V.I. Departments of Education and Agriculture and several farmers, including Nate Olive of Ridge to Reef Farm.
Planning the Program
Legislation was enacted to allow the DOE to implement a program and Property and Procurement to accept bids and pay for produce for school lunches.
Property and Procurement developed a process for growers to submit invoices and bids. Farmers were required to show they had paid their taxes and held liability insurance and Workman’s Compensation to qualify as vendors.
“The Department of Education’s Lunch Program staff were working out of their hearts,” after hours to develop a calendar for crops, Olive said.
Growing sufficient crops
Olive agreed to serve as the hub for farmers who wanted to participate in the program. They began planting long and purple beans and lettuce mixes, this year adding tomatoes, pumpkin, cucumbers, watermelon, eggplant, kale and butternut squash on the 130-acre farm.
Ridge to Reef farm purchased vehicles from the closed Hovensa refinery for delivering produce, and built a solar system that included a solar powered internet tower.
The food sent to the schools must be organic, by law, which means uniform in size and quality and adhering to standards regarding the use of pesticides, fertilizer, water and even how close the crops’ borders are with neighboring growers.
Olive said organic crops are monitored so closely they can be traced back to the row in which they were grown. Ridge to Reef is the only certified organic farm in the territory, but other farms learned to work within the federal requirements.
Growing food was just one facet of the logistics to feed V.I. schools. There were menus to be developed and school kitchens to equip. The number, types of crops to grow and storage had to be determined. There are federal laws, regulations and guidelines for schools and vendors and budgets for each area.
“The hardest part of the last three years is finding our local support,” Sibilly-Brown said.
Schools serve the first local produce
Favorable legislation allowed Ridge to Reef farmers to win a contract for the 2014-2015 school year. Beans were the first produce delivered, two months after the contract was signed, Olive said.
Before school began, there were taste tests and lunches prepared for school administrators, students and government staff, complete with a grading system to create a menu and schedule, according to Olive.
Ridge to Reef put together the orders and delivered to V.I. public schools, shipping produce to St. Thomas for distribution to St. John. For 40 weeks, produce was shipped to schools on all three islands from six farms. Olive admits it has been difficult providing enough of the same crop to each school and locally grown produce is only a small portion of the student lunch plate.
“What matters at the end of the day is that kids get nutrition in their bodies and it happens in a way to support the small businesses of the Virgin Islands who are farmers,” Olive said.
By the end of the school year, more than 200 cases of each crop will have been delivered to each school district – worth about $200,000.
As might be expected, payments from the V.I. government are not timely and so far, there has been no outside funding.
Olive built a small financial cushion with a community supported agriculture program. For a seasonal membership fee, members received a box of in-season produce weekly. The membership fees help pick up the slack and pay farmers and others on a regular basis until DOE catches up.
Will the Farm-to-School Lunch program grow?
Some of the challenges, according to Olive, have been growing and delivering crops efficiently and cost-effectively. Farmers don’t get rich, he said.
“There’s hardly any profit. I pay my mortgage and I pay the people who work,” he said. “I don’t do it to get rich. I’m not rich, by the way.”
Recently, Ridge to Reef leased land and will plant crops at the Carl and Marie Lawaetz Museum in St. Croix’s rain forest to increase production. Plantings will include turnips, radishes, lettuce, beans, papaya and pineapple as well as coconut and bananas.
Olive also plans to grow chaya, potentially a profitable cash crop for St. Croix. He said the collards greens like tree is easy to grow and better than spinach, with three times the protein. The plant is native to the Yucatan and has been grown for a thousand years in that area. The only drawback is that it is poisonous before cooking.
“You grab a stick (of chaya), shove it in the ground and go do something else,” Olive said. The plant needs no fertilizer and little water.
Completing a full circle, Olive said crops were grown at the Lawaetz museum in the 1960’s for the last school lunch program, started just after the Hess Refinery opened. According to soil testing, it is the most fertile soil in the Virgin Islands.
Olive’s fervent goal is to grow the farming industry in the territory. Farmers need to be treated respectfully, like other business people, he said.
Last December the V.I. Legislature passed Act 7815 to provide $35,000 from the Casino Revenue Fund to match USDA funds for the upcoming school year. Also, Gov. Kenneth Mapp has expressed, on several occasions, his desire to grow a farm-to-school program and has committed $1 million to pay for local food from local farmers.