Apple Orchard Brings Fresh Fruit to Colorado Cafeterias, Farmer’s Markets

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Salud Heroes
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Montezuma County (12.2 % Latino) was once well known for its blooming apple orchards. Back in 1904, three Gold Medals were awarded to the county at the St. Louis World’s Fair. But for years, these fresh apples weren’t always available to kids at local schools. Now, with the help of farm-to-school activists like Sarah Syverson and other groups, Cortez Middle School is growing a garden and an entire apple orchard to bring new fresh foods to local school cafeterias and to the school’s farmers market.

EMERGENCE

Awareness: Sarah Syverson, director of the Montezuma School to Farm Project (MSTFP) in Montezuma County, Colo., was proud of the school garden at Cortez Middle School (CMS).

Established in 2013 the schools garden was a place where education and healthy food access went hand-in-hand, giving students an experimental space to gain knowledge about healthy foods and grow fresh produce for the schools cafeteria.

MSTFP, which develops and operates school gardens across the county, were recently working to add more beds, fencing, and sheds at the Cortez school garden.

Syverson wanted to see what more they could do in an overgrown, unused softball field at Cortez.

“We started looking at the space and said, ‘Could we do more? Could we do a production area?’” Syverson said.

Learn/Frame Issue: MSTFP had collaborated before with Montezuma Orchards Restoration project (MORPS), an organization that works to save heritage orchard trees in the state.

They had worked together to plant a few fruit trees in other local schools and bring the community knowledge of the history of the apple trees Denver grew years ago.

MSTFP director Sarah Syverson and Tyler James School Garden Coordinator at Cortez Middle School. Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.
MSTFP director Sarah Syverson and Tyler James School Garden Coordinator at Cortez Middle School.
Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.

“We used to have a huge orchard district, [in Colorado] and there’s a lot of varieties [of apple trees] that are over 100 years old that are on the verge of dying out, that are specific to this area,” Syverson said. “We have hundreds of apple varieties that you don’t see in the grocery store.”

Learn/Frame Issue: Syverson wanted to use the old softball field to start an orchard to complement and grow the garden’s ability to produce healthy foods for the school.

An orchard would provide more access to fresh fruit for the kids and the surrounding communities, all while helping kids learn the science behind heritage-tree planting and the history of the long-forgotten apple trees of Colorado.

DEVELOPMENT

Education: Although the land was not being used by the school, Svyerson needed to convince the whole school to let them use the space to expand the garden program with the orchard trees—all with little-to-no funding.

Syverson knew that the principal at Cortez at the time, Jamie Haukeness, was supportive of school gardens projects, as they had worked together on getting their school garden developing earlier in 2013.

Haukeness also knew of MORPS and supported their efforts.

Mobilization: In September 2013, Syverson reached out to Haukeness to expand the school’s garden, hoping to use the unused field for a heritage tree orchard area.

“He was really open to the idea,” said Syverson.

Syverson and Haukeness worked together to develop an idea where kids could learn about the history of the area, access fresh heritage apples and learn math and gardening skills in the garden and orchard areas.

Haukeness worked with Syverson to set up a meeting with the Cortez school board for review of the idea.

Debate:  The school board would need to know how they would plan to keep the space maintained, and who would help fund and run the orchard.

The project needed funds for a school garden coordinator, materials to develop the space, and funding for new AmeriCorps positions that would help manage that space efficiently.

ENACTMENT

Activation: In September 2013, Syverson presented the program to the CMS school board, displaying what the vision for the orchard would be. She explained how they would use two AmeriCorps positions to help manage the space efficiently and apply for grants to help develop the space into a heritage orchard.

Specialty corn grown from Cortez Middle Schools garden. Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.
Specialty corn grown from Cortez Middle Schools garden.
Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.

The proposal included the history of MSTFP, the organization’s past accomplishments in other elementary school garden projects, and the vision to extend the space. Syverson presented the orchard tree area idea to continue to MSTFP’s work toward helping students have access to gardens, showing them that the orchards could expand access to new healthy fruits and historical education opportunities for the students.

MSTFP also applied for a grant to the Colorado Health Foundation (CHF) to help fund their projects at CMS, and later submitted a grant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to School Program (FTSP).

Funds from both organizations were planned to help develop and maintain all MSTFP school garden projects and the future orchard project at Cortez.

Both grants were rejected on their first attempt.

Frame Policy: Syverson personally called CHF officials to pursue the grant further, communicating what their program was and how they could collaborate.

For the FTSP grant, MTSFP applied solely as an educational project, but the funders were more interested how their project could develop a sizeable amount of produce for the school.

So Syverson re-developed the FTSP grant to include the Southwest Farm Fresh Distribution Cooperative (SFFDC), a local cooperative of more than 20 local farmers that help distribute local foods to institutions and businesses around the region.

The grant was now planned to help not only fund the Cortez garden and orchard, but also help SFFDC develop a food procurement system for the local area.

“There’s something to learn there in terms of, don’t give up the first time around,” Syverson said.

Change: In September 2013, the school district approved the proposal for the future orchard.

“The school board was hands down really excited about the project so they gave us a green light, and simultaneously we were applying for grants to be able to fund the use of that space,” Syverson said.

The CHF grant was approved in February 2014 to allow for the future planting the orchard.

Simultaneously, the school decided that they would like to have a farm to school elective teacher position, creating a full-time school garden coordinator position and an elective class for students to sign up for that helps them learn about local gardening, tree planting and more.

“That’s what really lifted it off the ground because we then had the resources,” said Syverson.

This new hire from the school not only worked toward the benefit of expanding the garden but now they could use the position to help expand the school’s garden and orchard production efforts, Syverson explained.

“It was kind of a perfect storm, in terms of the administration being willing and the land being available,” said Syverson.

IMPLEMENTATION

Implementation: On Oct. 17, 2013, 50 heritage apple trees were grafted from 100-year-old stock and planted for the school orchard.

Heritage apple trees being planted at Cortez Middle Schools garden. Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.
Heritage apple trees being planted at Cortez Middle Schools garden.
Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.

The Cortez garden and production team meet weekly to discuss and prioritize the many projects happening at the school.

Students can sign up for the school’s elective class, taught by the schools gardening coordinator, which supports learning about gardening, farming, and agriculture practices. Students in the class and volunteering in the garden expand on new skills within the orchard, like science lessons that incorporate tree grafting, water conservation, soil health, as well as new math skills used in mapping out and installing drip irrigation systems.

History lessons are also incorporated into outside classes, with the help of a collaborative project between MORPS and MTSFP. Students learn about historic apple orchards that were once flourishing in Montezuma County many years ago, and how the successful apple economy used the railroad system for apple delivery.

The Cortez Farmer’s Market a program also supported by MTSFP, partners with RE-1 Schools to educate students about healthy food choices.

Food is harvested from the school then sold at the Cortez Farmers Market by student growers while money earned at the market is then fueled back into the farm-to-school program.

Heritage apple trees being planted at Cortez Middle Schools garden by students. Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.
Heritage apple trees being planted at Cortez Middle Schools garden by students.
Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.

Once the orchard begins to bloom, plans are for the students and community to harvest the fruit trees and provide the community and surround school districts access to the state’s historic apples. Annual production of the orchard is estimated to reach more than 37,500 pounds of heirloom fruit for the students and the community to enjoy.

Equity: From July to September 2015, the elective class at Cortez has enrolled 96 students and harvested over 900 pounds of produce for the school and surrounding districts, with nutritious foods like cucumbers, sunflowers, canned pickles, green beans, and more.

The school has already reached 700 students with their taste testing tables, where students are allowed to taste test fresh vegetables and fruit grown on school property.

Over the summer, MSTFP also runs a Youth Farmers Apprenticeship Program, using AmeriCorps workers and CMS volunteers, to keep the garden growing and tend the orchard, and continue to sell produce at the Cortez Farmers Market.

All students involved in the summer program are awarded a $100 stipend to help encourage a continual cycle of growing and eating healthy foods in school and in the community.

Sustainability: Awarded with more funding in October 2014 from the FTS grant, MSTFP helped bring in $97,683 to help expand MSTFP school garden projects and support SFFDC’s efforts to deliver produce to Mancos, Dolores, Cortez, Bayfield, Ignacio, and Durango schools. 

Student cooks vegetables grown from Cortez Middle Schools garden. Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.
Student cooks vegetables grown from Cortez Middle Schools garden.
Photo Source: Montezuma School to Farm Project.

There were setbacks in the orchard’s progress to harvest fruit, as some trees were uprooted due to vandalism in May, but the community gathered together with volunteers to further the protection and advancement of the orchards.

The orchard and school garden continue to thrive at Cortez as MSTFP continues to help support the teachers, students and workers involved.

Svyerson explained that having the school positions paid not only helps the gardens and the tree orchard projects continue to thrive, but also helps open doors for new employment within the school.

“Having that paid school gardening position is what makes our program so strong, because they have a continual relation with the garden space, a continual relation with the teachers, with the students, with the community,” she continued, “When that person’s life moves on, then we have a position to open and we can hire that person and we have systems in place for that person.”

 

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

ABOUT THE PROGRAM

Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

For more information, visit http://www.salud-america.org.

By The Numbers By The Numbers

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of clinical trial participants are Latinos

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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