Nancy Burke (right) and student Taylor Warren (left) in the Haverhill High School garden. (Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Farm to School Project)
In the US, more than 2 million Education Support Professionals (ESPs) play vital roles in helping create great public schools for our students. Nearly 500,000 of these educators are members of the National Education Association (NEA). Working as bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, classroom paraeducators, food service staff, and in many other jobs, these essential educators help ensure that children are safe, healthy, well-nourished and well-educated.
ESPs are committed to their careers, their students and their communities. Seventy-five percent of NEA ESP members live in their school districts, and on average they have worked more than 11 years in their jobs. ESPs interact with student in different places than teachers do – on the school bus, in the cafeteria and at recess – and they often have multi-year relationships with students and their families and care deeply about their students’ welfare.
All of this makes ESPs tremendous resources for helping to connect students, parents and community allies with farm to school activities. Yet while thousands of schools across the country are engaged in farm to school work, there are very few places where ESPs are helping to lead these efforts.
The National Education Association and its state affiliate, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), recognized this missed opportunity began a farm to school pilot project in 2012 to develop and support ESP-led farm to school activities. NEA/MTA quickly realized that Massachusetts Farm to School (MFTS), the state lead organization for the National Farm to School Network, could be a key ally, and the organizations began collaborating to engage MTA ESP members in farm to school.
With technical assistance from MFTS and from NEA’s own Health Information Network, MTA’s project has had three principal components:
- Providing training and resources to MTA ESP members about student nutrition, farm to school and how they can be involved.
- Identifying ESP groups that want to work in their school districts to develop or expand farm to school.
- Sponsoring a mini-grant program to support these local programs.
In the 2013-2014 school year, NEA and MFTS identified the Haverhill Education Association as a group to help implement a pilot farm to school grant program. Haverhill is a diverse gateway city in northeastern Massachusetts, and the school district had already engaged in some basic farm to school activities.
Nancy Burke, an ESP who works as a paraeducator with students with disabilities at Haverhill High School, was inspired to start a school garden after participating in a workshop led by MFTS at Massachusetts Teacher’s Association’s annual ESP Conference.
"I sat back and said to myself, this would be wonderful for our children, who could be exposed to the garden, grow vegetables and know where their food comes from," Burke explains. "They may never have that experience at home because of their disabilities.”
With great tenacity, Burke enlisted a local Boy Scout to build a wheelchair-accessible raised bed garden in an under-utilized interior courtyard at Haverhill High School. He also built ramps to make the quad accessible to her students.
According to Burke, development of the school garden program was a transformative experience. “It empowered me to take on a leadership role, which I've never had before.”
A Haverhill High School students displays a harvest from the school's garden. (Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Farm to School Project.)
With funds from an NEA/ MTA farm to school mini-grant, Burke and the other ESPs in Haverhill have made additional investments in their school gardens, such as automated watering equipment and small tools. Encouraged by MTA to work collaboratively, teachers and paraeducators at three Haverhill schools are now working together on farm to school, with students at the alternative high school growing seedlings in their large greenhouse for other school gardens in the district.
"Most of our students come from disadvantaged urban neighborhoods," explains Alternative School teacher Neil Wilkins. "Ninety-five percent of our students receive free or reduced lunch assistance. We hope that providing them access to their own garden from start to finish can be a life-changing experience."
NEA/MTA and MFTS continue to work together, providing training and technical assistance to ESPs throughout the state to help them undertake farm to school projects. We hope to expand the mini-grant program to an additional three districts and watch the role of ESPs in the farm to school movement flourish in Massachusetts.
For more information about the NEA/MTA farm to school project, or if you are interested in working with ESPs in your community to develop farm to school programs, contact Jonathan Falk at the NEA’s Education Support Personnel Quality Department.