Like a large percentage of schools in Maine, Regional School Unit 57 has implemented several initiatives to bring local agriculture into its seven schools. However, the projects ― a new greenhouse, a couple of school gardens and composting efforts ― are relatively isolated from each other.

But after being awarded nearly $34,000 in grant funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Program, RSU 57 Superintendent Larry Malone is hoping the district is able to forge a farm-to-school initiative that is cohesive throughout all of the district’s seven schools.

“We have [agriculture curriculum] in pockets, and what we’re really looking to do is form a sustained effort so that it becomes a part of what RSU 57 will do [districtwide] and not hinge upon a specific teacher,” Malone said.

The six-town district in southern Maine applied for the competitive national grant program this fall, after being approached by a former student and Alfred native, Alayna Morin, who had been doing farm to school work in Vermont for Americorps before she moved back to Maine. Having heard of the composting and gardening projects that RSU 57 was working on, Morin offered to help the district apply for Farm-to-School grant.

RSU 57 was the only district in Maine to receive a grant from this program for fiscal year 2017. Nearly 300 districts nationwide applied for funding through this program, totaling about $21 million in funding requests. About $5 million of the total requests were awarded, including funding for RSU 57’s full request.

With this funding secured, Morin will act as the farm to school coordinator for the district and work over the next year to develop an action plan for how agriculture and local food can be incorporated into the classrooms and cafeterias, as well as implement several pilot programs such as farm field trips and incorporating locally grown food into school meals.

“It’s very much testing out everything on students and getting them involved and seeing what their enthusiasm is like around the program,” Morin said.

The funding RSU 57 received is designed to be used for the planning portion of farm to school initiatives, so school administrators and teachers can plan out how they want to incorporate local food and agriculture into the schools as well as test out these methods with students. If the 2017-2018 school year is successful, RSU 57 plans to apply for federal funding for the implementation part of the project.

By bringing agriculture and local food into schools, Morin and Malone said students can learn a host of skills ranging from healthy nutrition habits to what it takes to run a business.

“Long term with this grant I’m really hoping to get teachers involved and enthusiastic about anything really involving food. From nutrition to gardening to large scale farming, students will be learning,” Morin said. “High school students could learn how to run a business but through the eyes of a farm. Whether or not they take that to their family farm, or another business they would like to pursue later in life, they can learn that through farm to school.”

Maine is becoming a leader nationally in how school districts can bring agriculture and farm inspired curriculum into the classroom, according to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. This trend isn’t surprising to Pingree, a farmer herself, given that Maine has a long history of appreciating agriculture.

“Mainers have a great appreciation for farmers and for farming. A lot of Mainers have a home garden,” Pingree said. “I’m just really proud at how well schools have taken advantage of it. It’s part of our culture. It’s gotten increasingly popular for kids, for their teacher, for parents to have a growing interest in healthy food. I think we’ve been creative about it.”

According to the 2015 Farm to School Census, Maine’s participation rate in the program was 79 percent, compared with a national participation rate of 42 percent. Maine schools on average also spent 16 percent of their budget on sourcing local food.

School districts in Maine have been able to incorporate agriculture into the classroom in creative ways using creative funding, such as what RSU 19 is doing in central Maine. The district is using a variety of local and private grants to fund a cyclical food waste project, that includes the establishment of a compost system, a fruit orchard and expanding on existing school gardens ― all with the intention of getting student-grown fruits and vegetables into the school cafeterias.

Regardless of the methods that schools use to bring these farming-inspired lessons into the classroom, Morin says they’re beneficial across subjects and beyond school grounds, equipping the students with hands on practice in growing their own food and seeing the benefits of eating locally.

“You’re empowering children to make their own decisions about what they eat and what they do,” Morin said. “And just giving them one more option of what they can pursue in life which is what I think school is all about.”