Build it and they will come.
On an overcast Friday, I drive my car across the basketball courts at Balboa Middle School in Ventura. I can do this because school’s out for the summer and the only two people on the campus are Chris Massa and Michael (Mike) Roberts. On a vast sports field, they are working hard breaking ground for Salad Bar Farms.
Chris is the farm to school operations specialist for Ventura Unified School District. He’s a recent University of California 30 Under 30 Award winner. These awards were presented by UC’s Global Food Initiative to honor extraordinary work by young people in the food system.
I’ve known Chris for a while. We collaborated on some youth and food projects while he was a service member with FoodCorps. I love his vision, his creativity, his abilities as an educator and his commitment to increasing access to healthy food.
Mike is a farmer. He works for Ventura County farmer Phil McGrath and also as a consultant for the Abundant Table, a local non-profit that links faith and food production. In addition, Mike has his own farming enterprise on leased land in Camarillo.
Both Chris and Mike are passionate about growing the next generation of farmers; it’s this passion that has found them working today (and many days), on what they hope will be the first of many school farms in Ventura….and around the nation.
Chris, in particular, is inspired by the historical model of the United States School Garden Army (USSGA). This World War I program taught millions of American school children how to grow food for their nation. The USSGA was part of the larger Liberty Garden – later Victory Garden – movement that mobilized the nation on the food front in both World War I and World War II. The USSGA built on a strong national movement of school gardens. And in that school garden movement of the last century, Ventura’s school district – where Chris works today – was one of the nation’s leaders.
Chris and Mike met when Mike dropped off pumpkins from McGrath’s patch at Ventura Unified School District for an event. Their paths continued to cross through work in the district’s farm-to-school program, when Mike was featured as a farmer in the classroom. They also worked together in the district’s harvest of the month program. The two quickly realized they shared many interests, including teaching youth about farming.
Chris and Mike showed me around the site – right now, a field of dreams – and answered a few questions.
Q: Mike, can you tell me about the system that you and Chris are constructing here?
Mike: We’ve segmented the land into four areas. We’re creating a permanent bed system in each area. Each area has six in-ground beds measuring 30” by 30’. We’ll grow a diversity of crops, but anticipate that each bed will produce about 350 pounds of food per year. Again, it depends on what we grow. We’ll certainly grow greens, cherry tomatoes, carrots, sugar snap peas and maybe some legumes.
We could produce 8,000 pounds of food a year…
Chris: We’d also like to grow turnips and radishes to sell to families. One of the Balboa teachers – Steve Roth – and his students host a small farmers market on the campus for school families. We hope to be able to piggyback on that effort.
Q: How are you overcoming the barriers that make it challenging to produce food on site and get it into the cafeteria?
Chris: I am the district’s farm-to-school operations specialist, so I’m working inside the system. The district is currently spending $700,000 a year on fresh produce for the school lunch program. We’ve been able to involve local farmers in this work. We live in Ventura County, which is one of the nation’s top producers of fruits and vegetables. I have a background in farming. And it seems logical that the next step would be for the district to grow its own product to save money.
A big thing is student participation in the school lunch program. Revenue comes from getting kids to buy school lunch. We think – and research bears this out – that having kids plant, weed, harvest and taking fruits and vegetables to the cafeteria mean they’ll be more likely to eat it. Students take pride in growing the food that’s being served. They tell their friends and maybe more kids will want to buy the school lunch. And a big benefit could be that kids are more willing and accustomed to eating fresh fruits and vegetables…and they are also learning about agriculture.
Q: You’ve named this effort “Salad Bar Farms.” That’s plural…
Chris: That’s intentional. We hope to replicate this school farm model in other places. That’s what’s so awesome about working with Mike: we have a similar vision. We want every school to have a farm.
Mike: We’re trying to create a total package that includes farm plans, supplies needed, planting schedules and costs.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about how the United States School Garden Army organized and managed school gardens and farms across the U.S. in World War I, see this 32-page manual.
Q: This is a unique enterprise, in that your primary purpose is food production. What about the educational possibilities?
Chris: While the main purpose of this farm is food production, we are preserving one block for education. This space could be open to teachers for experiments like composting and seed saving. There’s an adjacent elementary school (Mound); this site will be open to those students to plant seeds and watch them grow…and for us to use as nursery starts on the production end. There are 1,700 students in close proximity to this emerging school farm (and that doesn’t include Buena, a nearby high school).
We’re looking at three metrics to assess the success of the project. How much food can we produce? We’ll put a market value on it and track it. Second, we hope to increase participation in the school lunch program at Balboa by 1%. Additionally, we’ll be looking at how we can use this work to help our compliance with California Assembly Bill 1826, which makes it more costly for institutions that produce waste to haul it off. So we’re going to try to reduce food waste and do more composting at this site. I’ll be with the students in the cafeteria during lunchtime to do direct intervention on food waste. I’ll be educating them, and we’ll be collecting food waste and scraps and weighing them.
Q: How are you funding the work?
Chris: The district is providing the land, water and some infrastructure pieces, including fencing. The district and a larger consortium of schools (I work farm-to-school operations for six districts) fund my salary. Mike is donating his time. We’re paying for some of the supplies and equipment out of our pockets now but hope to build up some funding streams to help support the ongoing work.
Q: When will the farm be operational?
Chris: Our first planting will be in mid-August. We’re taking a phased planting.
Mike: We should have the entire site planted by early October.
Q: What’s exciting you the most about this project?
Chris: For me, it’s giving kids access to fresh produce and the hands-on experience of farming.
As a child, I always had a garden and that food was so fresh and good. I still remember it. If I can provide that same experience to kids in Ventura County – that access to intense flavors, the experience of learning how it’s grown and the respect for the labor that goes into food production – I’ll consider this work successful.
Mike: My passion is centered in growing more farmers and getting young people inspired by working here. Like Chris, I want to see this model replicated in other schools.
Farmers play an essential role in creating more farmers in communities. Farmers are educators and connectors in their communities.