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A farm to school program lets students learn about local agriculture, provides food in Weston County

Upton Elementary School students eat lunch on Oct. 26.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
Upton Elementary School students eat lunch on Oct. 26. Weston County's two school districts have implemented the USDA's Farm to School program, which allows for locally grown food products to be served and to educate them on how local agriculture impacts them.

A farm to school program is helping educate students in Weston County about how food gets from local agricultural producers to their school lunch tray and the importance of the sector in that process. The program has been adopted by a few other school districts in the state and is part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiative that connects food producers to local schools. According to the USDA, it “makes local food and agricultural education available to child nutrition program participants through grants, research, technical assistance, and training.”

Weston County School District #7, which consists of Upton’s schools, adopted the program for this school year.

The district began preparations to implement the program near the end of last school year and adapted some of their facilities to be able to store donated meat and other food products. They had to pay some large upfront costs to get the program up and running, which they’re seeking to recoup. So far, it hasn’t affected the price of lunches. Vegetables were purchased at low cost from a local resident, who provided them from her and her husband’s garden.

“We converted a cooler at the high school to become a freezer so that we had enough place to store our beef and/or lamb or other products that we might get and got it all worked out this summer,” said WCSD #7 superintendent Clark Coberly.

The district currently has about 225 students K-12. The district’s food service manager calculated that they could feed their entire student population with five animals throughout the school year. This includes meat from lamb, sheep, and beef from cows or bulls. Coberly said the experience thus far has been positive from students and staff.

“Other school districts have considered the program and in doing that, and have adopted it, so I think it's one of those things that will continue to grow. But yeah, early returns are positive,” he said.

The program will continue for the foreseeable future. It’s also been well received from those who have donated or sold their products to the district.

Weston County School District #1, which consists of the Newcastle schools, adopted the program just recently.

“Weston [district] seven had made the move towards the program before we did, and so what generally started [on] social media is why are they doing it and not you?” said Brad LaCroix, the district’s superintendent. “And so, we sort of slow walked it during this sort of complex time and [with] the economy, how eager was the board going to be asking for others to donate?”

But despite some hesitancy, they’ve made efforts to connect with those involved in local agriculture to build connections.

“We reached out to the CowBelles which is the local group of females that are in the ranching industry, ranching families, and to see what the interests would be, if any, at this time to see if there [were] any donated animals,” LaCroix said. “So, everything's sort of in progress. But as far as producing any product that we're serving to students right now, we're not there.”

There have been some interested parties that have reached out to some of the school board members to possibly donate or provide support for the program.

“I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see something happen around the first part of the year,” LaCroix said. “And then if not, then I would definitely think by next school year. It seems like, and visiting with other school districts, right after the county fairs are usually when most people either buy or donate or a combination of both.”

There are over 800 students currently enrolled in WCSD #1. Unlike their counterparts in Upton, LaCroix felt that while the program would be a benefit to the district, it wouldn’t cover all of their food needs.

“Right now, from looking at the other schools and visiting with them, I mean, we may be one of the larger populations [to implement the program],” he said. “And that's why I don't think you're just going to be able to stand up and walk away from the federal lunch program. I think this is a way to start and I think it is a way for the community to get involved in public schools and we've been blessed here in Weston 1 because our community has been very, very supportive of public schools.”

Fremont County School District #24 and Niobrara County School District #1 are other districts that have also implemented the program, Coberly said. The USDA has published statistics about the program on the website regarding Wyoming’s participation in it. Over 67,000 schools nationwide currently participate in the program, according the USDA.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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