“I thought it was junk mail!” said Trista Scheuerlein as she recalled receiving the first notification that she was one of three people who won Liberty Mutual’s “Local Leaders, Big Responsibility” contest on TheAtlantic.com.
“I deleted the e-mail and reported it as spam,” she laughed as she cleaned a spot on a picnic table in Rappahannock County Elementary School’s courtyard garden. “The next day someone from TheAtlantic.com called me to ask if I got the e-mail.”
Scheuerlein is program director of Farm-to-Table, a Headwaters program in partnership with Rappahannock County Public Schools. The program’s stated purpose is to “captivate and cultivate students who are good stewards of the earth and productive community members through classroom study of horticulture, planting and maintenance of school gardens, and hands-on experience at local family farms.”
Scheuerlein said she’s been so busy with the program that she “almost forgot” she was nominated for the award.
“In 2009 I gave a Farm-to-Table presentation at the Sun Supper Club in Marshall, Virginia,” she said. “Claiborn Crain heard what we do and said he’d like to nominate me for the award.” Crain is a senior staffer for Congress’ agriculture committee, though his backing of Scheuerlein and the Rappahannock Farm-to-Table program come from his longtime personal support for innovative rural agriculture programs.
After hearing the story of Rappahannock County’s Farm-to-Table program, Crain said he knew Scheuerlein was the right person to nominate.
“I was impressed with how Trista involves the different departments of school and even the community to come together to work for a common goal,” he said. “That’s what success is all about. Success can’t be achieved by just one person.”
Crain hopes the award to Scheuerlein will get the program more exposure, prompting other schools to look into starting their own.
“I am very pleased to see what’s happening in Rappahannock County Schools,” he said. “And I’m happy that Trista was one of the winners. She truly deserves the recognition.”
The “Local Leaders, Big Responsibility” contest is part of Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project, a forum to discuss and implement programs to help the earth and humanity. Each winner received $1,000 to donate to a charity of their choice and will be featured in a five-minute video on www.responsibilityproject.com and www.theatlantic.com.
[Note: The video is embedded near the bottom of this page.]
Scheuerlein said she’s flattered to win the award, and, like Crain, is hoping the recognition will help spread the Farm-to-Table concept. She’s already had phone calls from neighboring school systems.
“We’d love to be a part of a ‘growing’ movement in schools,” she said.
Scheuerlein said the program started as a simple high school gardening project in 2004, but has expanded “exponentially.” The high school now has a garden, hoop house and greenhouse, and the elementary school has the Young Garden in the once-desolate enclosed courtyard, so named for the Young Farmland Preservation Fund – whose creators, Mitzi and the late Bill Young of Washington, were among the first to support Headwaters’ efforts in agriculture and related educational programs.
“The elementary kids hauled 18 cubic yards of mulch by wheelbarrow, load by load through the school halls into this courtyard,” she said, “And they’re continually making improvements.”
Thanks in part to a recent large donation to Headwaters by the Young Fund, Scheuerlein said the elementary school garden is getting a major facelift.
The Farm-to-Table program quickly grew outside of school boundaries, she said. Elementary and high school students work on local farms, where they learn about sustainable agriculture and grow and help distribute crops to community businesses and charities. Food grown by students is also used in school cafeterias. Area businesses and individuals, as well as the school board, help Headwaters fund the program.
“The community response has been overwhelming,” she said.
Scheuerlein is also pleased that the response of the various departments in both schools has been positive.
“Farm-to-Table is its own entity, but collaborates in a multi-disciplinary fashion with the culinary arts and building trades departments and the welding and industrial arts classes,” she said. “For example, art students designed and painted the sculptures and the welding class students made signs and ornaments for the gardens.”
She also noted that other academic or elective classes could benefit from hands-on learning in the garden setting.
“A math class can count how many seeds to plant in a row and a history class can study how the Dust Bowl in the 1930s happened and learn from how to prevent a similar occurrence by utilizing the sustainable agriculture practices we employ,” she said. “There’s so much to learn in a garden setting. I’ve worked in agriculture for years and I’m still learning.”
Scheuerlein moved to Rappahannock County in 2001 to work at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville. She’s worked at sustainable agriculture sites in the nation and abroad since 1998. She discovered early on that Americans, particularly American children, see little connection between animals and plants and the food they eat daily.
“Teaching kids about what they eat and giving them the pride of ownership of their food [by growing it themselves] were among my main motivators for getting involved in this program,” she said. “If they grow food, they will appreciate having it, and they’ll more likely try a healthy food they aren’t familiar with.” She said one of her elementary school students tasted red lettuce for the first time and exclaimed, “This is really good!” He didn’t realize lettuce came in a variety other than iceberg.
Toni Egger, executive director of Headwaters Foundation, agrees that the Farm-to-Table project may be a catalyst for change in the nutritional status of children in the community and the community at large.
“We’re excited about what we’ve done and what we can do,” Egger said. “We look forward to growing food on a larger scale.”
Scheuerlein donated her $1,000 prize to Green Lunch Revolution, a new Food-to-Table project seeking to produce healthy foods on typical school budgets and teach children and educators the basics of good nutrition.
“Unlike other gardening programs in the nation’s schools, our program is not an after-school program or simple gardening program,” Egger said, “Instead, it is part of the daily life of everyone in the school and is also well-integrated into the community. Trista played a pivotal role in what it’s become and what it’s evolving to be. It’s good to see her recognized on the national level.”
For more information about Farm-to-Table or to volunteer, visit www.headwatersfdn.org or call Headwaters at 540-987-3322.