WCU students and faculty help craft a model for involving college students in a program to support local farmers while teaching community members about healthy cooking and eating


A 4-year-old started crying when WCU nutrition and dietetics student Christina Shupe invited him and his classmates to glue pictures of carrots, lettuce, potatoes, onions, strawberries, apples and other fruits and vegetables on paper crowns. “He didn’t want to eat vegetables, and he thought he was going to be forced to,” said Shupe, a senior from Raleigh. She visited the preschool weekly during the last academic year to lead cooking and gardening activities, and assist with special events such as a visit from a local farmer with a baby goat.

Her efforts to help children become more aware and accepting of healthy foods and the connection with local farms and farmers were part of a collaborative project involving the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, WCU and local schools. For the past six years, WCU faculty members and students have assisted with developing a model for involving college students – particularly students preparing to be educators, nutritionists and dietitians – in Farm to School programs, and to teach them how to incorporate program activities into their future careers as educators and health professionals. About 800 WCU students have taken part in some way in what has become a program called “Growing Minds @WCU.”


Jamie Adams, an inclusive education major, works with students in the Head Start program at Fairview Elementary School.

“Together, we have created a model that other universities are interested in,” said Emily Jackson ’99, founder and program director of the Farm to School Growing Minds Program for ASAP. “The project has exceeded our expectations, and WCU was integral to making it happen.”

Farm to School programs across the nation help schools procure local, healthy produce for cafeterias and classrooms in a way that supports farmers in their communities. Programs also can teach students about making healthy food choices through activities such as working in school gardens, farm field trips, taste tests and cooking lessons. Part of what led Jackson to take the helm of ASAP’s Farm to School programs in 2002 were experiences she had as a teacher in Haywood County. Even though Western North Carolina is home to nearly 12,000 family farms, many of Jackson’s students were distanced from the region’s agricultural heritage, she said.

“They were surrounded by farms, but when they talked about gardens, they talked about mamaw and papaw, not mom and dad,” said Jackson. “If we don’t know where food comes from and have a value for fresh, whole foods, then it is harder to make choices to buy and eat fresh, healthy food. In my experience, if children grow it in the garden, they want to eat it. If they meet the farmer, they want to eat it. If they cook it, they want to eat it. It’s about relationships, and through Farm to School programs, we have the opportunity to help our children value fresh, healthy food and live healthier lives.”

In addition to seeking interest from working teachers, nutritionists and dietitians in Farm to School programs, she wanted to reach professionals-in-training as early in their careers as possible. To that end, she contacted Patricia Bricker, associate director of WCU’s School of Teaching and Learning and an associate professor of science education, about incorporating Farm to School into WCU students’ coursework or activities.

“As Emily and I discussed a Farm to School partnership, I was excited about helping our students experience ‘outside the box’ teaching methods and the possibilities this could bring,” said Bricker. “I began to envision our pre-service teachers learning, creating and leading ways to engage their students in experiential activities that could make a difference in their individual lives and in our local community.”


With a grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, a pilot project was launched in 2009. Participants included health sciences students enrolled in a liberal studies course offered by the School of Health Sciences centered on food, nutrition and culture, and a “Didactic Program in Dietetics” course focused on community nutrition, as well as elementary and middle grades education students in a science methods course. The students learned about ASAP and its mission, Farm to School programs, curricular connections and ASAP’s resources from lesson plans to recipes. Afterwards, five education and four nutrition students took part in a semester-long Farm to School professional learning community. They met monthly with each other, ASAP staff and WCU faculty to make plans for implementing Farm to School activities in Jackson County elementary schools and then to share their efforts, problem-solve and celebrate successes.

ASAP and WCU faculty also worked with the Jackson County School System and Head Start to establish Cullowhee Valley School and Fairview Head Start Center as “learning lab sites” where WCU volunteers could assist with and begin to take on leadership roles in administering Farm to School program activities. Participating WCU students said they were excited to work with a program that offered them a way to combat childhood obesity, connect them with the community and promote environmental stewardship, and their excitement propelled the project into the second phase.

With support from a three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Farm to School at WCU continued to be integrated into health sciences and education courses, and the university initiated a Farm to School fellowship program. Students selected to serve as fellows received stipends to facilitate Farm to School programming at the learning lab sites and to coordinate volunteers from WCU in the activities.

A pre-service teacher from WCU said that the potential for matching the curriculum to Farm to School activities was strong, according to an interview excerpt included in a science education book chapter that Bricker co-authored with Jackson and Russell Binkley, associate professor of social studies education. The pre-service teacher noted that Farm to School activities could help students strengthen skills in mathematics through measuring, creating graphs, adding, subtracting, analyzing data, and discussing probability and symmetry; in language arts through comparing and contrasting and reading stories; in social studies through discussions of being responsible citizens or community differences based on recipes; and in science through examining states of matter, physical and chemical changes, and making and testing hypotheses using the scientific method.

As a Farm to School fellow, Monica Gatti ’13 MAEd ’15 hosted cooking lessons for kindergarten, first- and second-grade students on Fridays and with individual classes monthly at Cullowhee Valley School. Using recipes from ASAP, Gatti would organize supplies such as blenders or ingredients including locally grown produce; show pictures of the farmers and their families who grew those ingredients; and discuss the foods and use a recipe board so students could see and talk about the ingredients and instructions. They were given ASAP recipe cards to take home.

In her work as a fellow and a student teacher, Gatti also led ASAP activities such as sorting locally purchased pumpkins by shape, counting the seeds inside and then baking the seeds for the students to taste. In another, students picked and then proudly used the sugar snap peas that they had grown in a garden in the lettuce wraps they made, she said. In yet another, she led students in creating digital stories about their garden. Gatti had learned about digital storytelling in a course taught by Nancy Luke, WCU assistant professor of educational technology. The stories, which featured photos and captions as well as writing, offered a way for students who were struggling with writing or who may not be as participatory in other areas to succeed. “It was really magical,” said Gatti. “Seeing the kids react to the hands-on activities was a great experience, and I liked how it incorporated the aspect of supporting the local community as well.”

For health sciences students, Farm to School programming offered a way to promote health in a hands-on, educational way in venues such as schools, hospitals, health departments, child care centers and residential facilities that serve meals. Shupe, who was nicknamed the “vegetable lady” by the students at the preschool where she coordinated Farm to School activities, said she witnessed significant attitude changes in the children, including the boy who had cried during the crown decorating activity. “He was still resistant, but he began to allow what we were tasting on his plate, cut it, touch it and sometimes try it,” said Shupe.

Other ways health sciences students implemented Farm to School ranged from coordinating healthy food taste tests at farmers markets to applying for grants for local, healthy food programs. WCU nutrition and dietetics students and graduates have had a hand in making it possible for Women, Infants and Children vouchers to be accepted at local farmers markets, procuring local foods that would be incorporated on menus and writing procedures for food preparation that account for local foods, said Sherry Robison, WCU dietetic internship director and clinical coordinator for dietetic internships.

An annual workshop WCU developed with ASAP and with support from Lenoir-Rhyne University for dietetic internship students has attracted attendance from WCU, Lenoir-Rhyne University and Appalachian State University, all of which also work with ASAP, said Robison. The workshop covers topics such as identifying local food vendors and approaches for adjusting menus to incorporate local foods in a sustainable way, conducting a nutrition education event and complying with regulations in licensed child care centers, such as not cooking over heat.

“We see Farm to School as a way to nurture children’s minds and nurture their bodies with healthy foods and skills that will last a lifetime and impact future generations to come,” said Robison. “We want to make a strong connection and see that transition of information into the home. If I walk through a grocery store to see a young child wanting to add fruits and vegetables to the grocery cart, that’s a success.”


Surveys of parents at the learning lab sites indicated that children who participated in Farm to School programs were inspiring their families to try new foods. Parents said their children came home with recipe cards, wanted to cook what they had enjoyed at school and urged them to buy the ingredients. Kathryn Kantz, principal at Cullowhee Valley School, also said visits to the school’s salad bar, which features fresh local vegetables, increased during the past year. In addition, she said students who participated in Farm to School programs early in their educational careers seemed to be more willing to try vegetables and fruits than others. “Anecdotally, we have found that those students who began school at Cullowhee Valley and had been exposed to fresh foods were more open to trying new foods than those students who joined us in later years,” said Kantz.

Another offshoot of the university partnership of ASAP has been WCU student research. Projects have ranged from an education student’s exploration of how to integrate farm field trips, nutrition, cooking and gardening into an already filled third-grade curriculum to nutrition and dietetics students’ study of whether children were more likely to try a new food if they saw a cooking demonstration first. (They were, according to the findings.)

Also, the partnership led Robison to work with ASAP dietician Amy Paxton-Aiken and Jackson to design Farm to School-related activities and assignments that correspond with core competencies for a nationally required 1,200-hour supervised practice internship for registered dieticians. For instance, for the “analyzing financial data to assess utilization of resources” competency, students could compare the cost of a standardized recipe to the cost using locally produced foods. For “developing and evaluating recipes and menus that accommodate the cultural diversity and health needs of a group or individual,” interns could adapt a recipe to replace an ingredient with a local food item and conduct a taste test to evaluate how well the adapted dish would be accepted. Robison shared information about the initiative at a national Food and Nutrition Expo held in Houston with 75 faculty members and students from institutions as far away as Washington. She also shared the work at a Southeastern Obesity Summit held in Nashville.


WCU softball player Heather Chastain practices making healthy snacks.

Meanwhile, the model for incorporating Farm to School in university settings emerged. Components include hosting local and Farm to School training tailored for specific university student groups; incorporating Farm to School experiences into class presentations, research projects and service-learning requirements; offering paid, part-time positions or fellowships for Farm to School programs in which students gain leadership experience; establishing learning labs at schools, tailgate markets, health facilities or other locations where university students can regularly participate in Farm to School activities; and offering resources such as a library of children’s books, curriculum guides, cooking kits, recipe cards, stickers and stipends for cooking demonstrations, taste tests, farm field trips and farmer and chef classroom visits.

Jackson also said their experience suggests a higher success rate for Farm to School programs when faculty members and students are able to go to a farm and make a personal as well as professional connection with local farmers. “ASAP has all kinds of local food stories, but the faculty member and the students need to have their own stories to share,” she said. Another key is leaving room for college students to bring their own ideas and initiative to the program. When students were charged only with finding a way to incorporate Farm to School in their student teaching or internship sites and then reporting what did and did not work, “it was marvelous to see how excited they were,” said Jackson. “It is important for the students to be able to pioneer rather than just walk into a classroom where food is already purchased, cut up and prepped for the activity.”

Bricker said she and others at WCU are proud to be part of an initiative that brought together multiple partners with multiple goals in a common project. “There is a lot of value when we are able to come together and pool our expertise and resources to address a range of needs in a way that has a positive impact in the community,” she said.

Now with a model developed, WCU will build on the foundation and continue to feature Farm to School components in courses while increasing the involvement of WCU’s Center for Service Learning. The center will serve as an administrative hub for WCU’s Farm to School programs, fund associated fellowships and offer additional leadership and volunteer management training to the fellows, said Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning. “This project was started with seed funding, and what we are seeing today is that transformation from a sapling to a stronger oak to an oak tree,” said Perry. “This program fits with our mission by offering students a chance to help the region with a salient issue while learning through experiential learning, service learning and community engagement – all while working with the people that they will be working with after they walk across the stage at commencement.”