Mother Lode region strikes Farm to School gold

When it comes to really improving the lives of children in cafeterias and classrooms alike, Kevin and Autumn Hesser are emerging superstars up in Calaveras County and the surrounding Mother Lode region of the California Farm to School Network. (For a view of the Mother Lode and the rest of our current regions and regional leads, see this map!)

The Hessers, along with UC Master Gardener Odile Morrison, are the heart and soul of Gardens to Grow In, a newly-minted non-profit organization that began under the umbrella of Calaveras Unified School District Educational Foundation. Gardens to Grow In has acted as an incredibly strong community builder through its work to help school gardens get up and running, provide engaging nutrition and cooking education to youth, and support a number of other projects to enhance school food environments, such as on-campus farmers markets and sending families home with tools and skills to grow more food at home.

Kevin and Autumn Hesser receiving the Golden Health Award, February 2014

Kevin and Autumn Hesser receiving the Golden Health Award, February 2014

The organization has now expanded its reach to surrounding counties, and also expanded its focus. With a sizeable network of schools and communities working together on building and strengthening garden and culinary education, the Hessers saw the opportunity to really support their regions by improving the way that Mother Lode-area cafeterias source food, all while considering and integrating the “three pillars” of Farm to School: Access, Engagement, and Knowledge (more about that in the future!).

The Hessers are motivated by the belief that if we create a community centered, health based paradigm in our schools and community, all other elements of our educational system and community will thrive.  Healthy people and Farm to School programs are foundational to this system, as shown in CHASSIS, a framework for “Creating Healthy and Sustainable Systems in Schools”.

Now that Gardens to Grow in is doing more to reach out to farmers and ranchers in the Mother Lode region and create a database of growers and buyers, they are showing the importance of building on a strategy that sees the interdependence between school garden education and local food procurement. In other words, by seeing how getting kids energized, excited, and educated about fresh foods translates into increased demand and consumption in the school cafeteria the Hessers are showing the rest of California how to really get this work done!


Autumn and Kevin’s work is a prime example of how building relationships with partners in your region maximizes projects. The constellation of partnerships they’ve helped build includes not only Calaveras Unified teachers, staff and administration, but also a FoodCorps service member, the University of California Cooperative Extension office, and a number of community-based organizations throughout the Mother Lode region. With a unified effort, we expect to see the Mother Lode continue to show some great leadership and inspiration for the rest of the CFSN.

If you have the time and interest, skim Kevin and Autumn’s end-of-2013 highlights below for ideas about how to energize your own Farm to School program. We know you’ll definitely be inspired.

Key takeaways from this story for emerging Farm to School programs:

  1. Build relationships with regional partners. Whether it’s a local non-profit, a university, or a parents network, build a strong network — barriers (including funding barriers!) are more easily defeated when you have a strong team and demonstrated commitment across your community.
  2. Understand and maximize the relationship between school garden education and local food procurement. Setting up a successful school garden program is attractive to funders, boosts momentum around improving the school food environment.
  3. Think about the three pillars as you build your program. Think about how each objective in your Farm to School program achieves the larger goals of Access, Engagement, and/or Knowledge. See Kevin’s summary below for ideas about how to think about these.

Calaveras Unified School District – END OF 2013 Highlights

With the support of [all of our partners], here are a few of the things we were able to accomplish over the last three and a half months.

Valley Springs Elementary School

  • Over 400 K- 6th grade students received four GENE lessons and tastings in the garden – Eating the Rainbow, Plant and Human Needs, Plant Parts We Eat and MyPlate – Nutrition Sandwich. (Knowledge)
  • Countless hours of garden maintenance with small groups – harvesting, planting, weeding, building soil, paths etc – transitioned from a summer to winter garden. (Engagement)
  • Successful fall Farmers Market – over $800 raised for garden projects and many children and families took home food grown in the garden. (Access)
  • High School Ag. Students are helping in the garden every Wednesday. (Engagement)
  • 30 plus students were able to participate in an after school garden club on a weekly basis (Knowledge, Engagement, Access)
  • Relationships built with the Valley Springs Youth Center and Kid’s Place to involve students in garden projects. (Engagement)
  • Relationships developed with students and getting to know personalities of students and classes.
  • Students “want” to get into the garden – excitement built around being able to be in the garden.
  • Students are beginning to create ideas and plans for garden. (Knowledge, Engagement)
  • Students have begun to encourage parents to plant gardens. (Access)
  • Students harvested and prepared food from School Garden for class tastings.

Toyon Middle School

  • Kitchen stations/home ec. room cleaned out and all dishes etc sanitized.  Kitchen stations are back in working order after five years of not being used!
  • 60 students participated in four cooking lessons utilizing food grown in the school garden (Kale Salad, Bulgar Pepper Salad, Roasted Potato with Greens Wraps, Orange and Carrot Salad, and Spinach Smoothies).  This included the special day class who is focusing on more “functional living” skills. (Knowledge, Access)
  • Composting bins were constructed. (Knowledge, Engagement)
  • Students educated about compost and developed posters to begin a school-wide composting campaign.  (Knowledge)
  • Garden maintenance activities with small groups. (Engagement)
  • Enthusiasm and interest built among students and staff around cooking healthy food from the garden. (Knowledge, Access)

West Point Elementary 

  • Each 1st-6th grade student engaged in garden lesson at least once.
  • Small garden groups engaged in gardening activities each week.
  • Winter garden beds amended and planted.
  • Students tasted (75% tasted for the first time) and enjoyed winter root crops.

Rail Road Flat Elementary

  • Garden lessons part of Rail Road Flat Enrichment Program
  • Composting station created
  • Weekly GENE activities in the garden with K-6th
  • Team of 5th and 6th graders water and care for garden
  • Students tasted (75% tasted for the first time) and enjoyed winter root crops
  • Greenhouse shelves constructed

San Andreas Elementary (New Garden Project)

  • Relationships built with PTC, parents and admin. to establish garden team.
  • $2000.00 Whole Kids Grant Submitted
  • $800.00 raised to build first beds
  • Work party set for February 9th to break ground.

Calaveras High School

  • High school students helping at elementary sites.
  • Water trenches dug, beds cleared and materials list established for high school garden area.

Community Groups

  • Relationships developed with Calaveras Master Gardeners and The Resource Connection Food Bank
  • Garden work days supported at the Master Garden.
  • Vegetable starts distributed to Food Bank garden and planted.
  • Presentations to Rotary and parent clubs about FoodCorps and related projects.

Farm to School
Database compiled of all schools in El Dorado, Amador, Tuolumne, and Calaveras to gather first round of Farm to School/School Garden information in the spring and begin the process of establishing a Mother Lode Farm to School/School Garden Network.

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