Working once a week with sixth-grade teacher Steve Gabel-Richards, close to 50 middle school students are learning about farming and where food comes from through fun, hands-on activities and field trips.

Some different themes the students have learned about include Maine agriculture, food systems, soil health and composting, cooking and food preservation, animal care, and the science of gardening. Students have been on field trips to the Common Ground Country Fair and to COA’s Peggy Rockefeller Farms, where they planted garlic, made apple cider, processed dry beans, and learned about sheep care from Farm Manager C.J. Walke. There are also plans to build a greenhouse.

The program started in the 2012-13 school year, when two COA students were awarded grant funding. The students involved with the program have either volunteered as service learning, done the program as work-study, or done the program through a class titled “Tutorial for Research and Program Development for Ecological Education” by COA professors Dr. Bonnie Tai and Dr. Molly Anderson.

The program has been organized and taught by COA graduate student Abby Plummer and undergraduates Greg Bernard, Mel Steinberg, Page Hill, Samantha Donofrio, Sarah Maness, and Soleil Pacetti.

Plummer’s part-time position — the official job title is COA Conners-Emerson Farm to School Program Director — was funded as a graduate assistantship under Tai’s supervision.

“We are very excited to be expanding the program to the winter and spring terms this year for the first time ever,” she said. “We will be helping with the construction of a school greenhouse and raised beds.”

The position will be funded throughout the year through COA’s Sustainable Food Systems Program.

“Although everyone needs to eat in order to survive, many students are so far removed from agriculture that they don’t know where the food they eat comes from, let alone the implications that food choices can have in their lives,” Plummer said. “Farm-based education such as Farm to School programs offer a fun, hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to helping students understand where food comes from and how personal choices about food can impact their health, their community, and the environment.

“Using gardens, cooking with local foods, and farm-based curricula, Farm to School programs can enhance all school subjects and engage students, which can lead to increased academic achievement and a greater enjoyment of learning. Farm to School programs promote environmental responsibility, and directly benefit students, schools, local farms, and communities.”