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Students at Unicoi County schools in East Tennessee are enjoying a bounty of fresh produce, thanks to the efforts of about 100 agriculture students at Unicoi County High School in Erwin. As part of an innovative agriculture program led by teachers Lucas Anders and Holly Rogers, students are growing lettuce, strawberries, raspberries and potatoes that will be served in local school cafeterias.

The students also partner with local farmers to help them sell and deliver fresh tomatoes, apples, cucumbers, blueberries, watermelon and cantaloupe to area schools. It’s a win-win for students and farmers.

“Fresh produce is harvested and delivered to schools the same day,” Anders says. “During the spring semester of 2017, our students delivered produce to as many as 20 schools every week.”

Photo courtesy of Lucas Anders

Supplementing School Lunches

The program started in 2013 when Anders was hired as an agriculture teacher at the school.

“The director of schools mentioned that the district would like to see us grow vegetables to supplement the lunch program at all the schools in the county,” Anders says. “It just so happened that Farm Credit had six greenhouses available, so I called to see if they would give us a shot to purchase them. Several of their employees had been agriculture educators, and they ended up donating the greenhouses to us.”

In 2014, agriculture students began clearing out an area of the school property, building raised beds, setting up the irrigation system and sowing their first crops. The school already owned two greenhouses, so they now have eight. The students have been delivering lettuce to area schools ever since, and they are working to grow enough vegetables and berries to regularly supplement the lunch program at the high school, where as many as 70 percent of students receive reduced-price lunches.

“This may be the only meal some of these kids get on a given day,” Anders says. “If we can make lunch better quality, then we can improve their lives.”

The program also helps agriculture students get hands-on experience in the industry.

“Our partnerships with local farms have been great because some of our students actually work on these farms during the summer, so they help grow produce like tomatoes that are not grown in our greenhouse,” Anders says.

Photo courtesy of Lucas Anders

From Farm to School

Students pick up and deliver the produce using an F-350 pickup truck that Farm Credit helped supply. The Farm Bureau has also been supportive of the program, matching a $3,500 contribution from the school system for a total investment of $7,000 in the agriculture program.

In July 2017, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture supplied the program with a grant of $15,000, which will be used to purchase a larger delivery truck during the 2017-18 school year.

“This program has really helped get students excited about all the opportunities in agriculture,” Anders says. “I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I’m in the ag industry today because of my high school agriculture program. I don’t want kids to think they can’t be in agriculture if they didn’t grow up in it.”

In 2017, students also grew 5,000 mums to sell. Then as winter approached, they harvested Christmas trees from two local farms to sell.

“The kids cut and bale the trees at the farms, deliver them to customers and make wreaths from the greenery,” Anders says.

In January, they start working on spring bedding plants, which they sell to the public in April.

“This program has instilled a sense of pride in our school and our community. It’s been a blessing,” Anders says. “Our students have a great work ethic, and they’ve made the program succeed. As you drive through town, you see flowers, landscaping and hanging baskets, and it’s all because of our students.”

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