It’s a beautiful midwestern late-summer day and Jacy Eckerman, Emma Hanisko and I are sitting on a sunny porch just off of Main Street in Cambridge, WI (population 1,509). I’m here to meet Emma, a local student, and learn about her work with the school garden. Our setting is appropriate: outside the screens of the bucolic porch we are surrounded by the Eckerman family’s many raised-bed vegetable plots, and a stand of tall sunflowers cast shadows across our table.
I first heard about Emma from Jacy, one of two Farm-to-School coordinators in the town. (Both are pictured below.) We were discussing the growth of the farm-to-school program in Cambridge, which has an encouraging amount of support and momentum. During the course of our energetic discussion, Jacy casually mentioned an ambitious high school junior that had just been awarded a $1,000 Madison4Kids grant to put toward fruit trees and plantings to benefit the school district. I knew I had to meet her.
A few weeks later, sitting across the table from Emma, chatting casually about the project, I quickly realized that her story of service spans far beyond the $1,000 grant.
It started when Emma was in elementary school. She recalls a particular instance during class snack time, when she noticed that while many of her classmates were happily munching on granola bars and sipping chocolate milk, one of her fellow students never seemed to have a snack. “I remember thinking that I didn’t think it was fair,” she said, “But yet I didn’t know why.”
Emma’s classroom observation sparked something within her. That year, for her birthday party, she requested that her friends bring food pantry donations in lieu of gifts. Every year since, her birthday celebration has been a “Party for the Pantry.” Emma also started volunteering for the Cambridge Food Pantry in 6th grade, and has been an active volunteer ever since.
To fully understand Emma’s story, it is important to understand the landscape of food and farming in Cambridge.
Farming and agriculture is a central part of Cambridge’s past - as with most rural towns in America. Today, farming still plays a large role in the town’s identity, and community members want it to stay that way. Active groups like FFA and 4H engage multiple generations. And the school district has a unique asset from this agricultural history: a school farm.
In 1989, a Cambridge farmer named Oscar Severson left his entire farm to Cambridge Schools, creating an 80+ acre space that includes tilled fields, woodlots, a pond, a wetland scrape, a small orchard, and several large garden spaces. There’s also a barn and outbuildings used by FFA students for animal husbandry projects. The Severson Learning Center keeps Cambridge students concretely connected to their town’s agricultural past.
And, it provides opportunities for the entire town. One of the large garden spaces is a dedicated Food Pantry Garden. Each summer, Emma spends 1-2 days per week tending the garden; from planting to weeding to harvesting, Emma helps to nurture the space while providing locally-grown produce for the Pantry.
Which brings us back to the grant, fruit trees, and why we were sitting on Jacy’s sunny porch. Emma’s contribution of fruit trees and plants will serve not only the food pantry garden, but also the school garden.
Jacy, who recently took over leadership for the Cambridge Farm to School group, along with fellow parent and community member Ben Timp, has big plans for the program. “Really we want to think about Farm to School for the long haul,” she said. “And Emma’s grant from Madison4Kids will help us do that. Projects like Emma’s are helping us change the entire direction of Farm to School here. We are going to focus on perennial berries, fruits, and asparagus.”
The hope is that by being strategic about the types of plants grown in the school garden, the school’s kitchens can get maximum use out of the crops while minimizing strain on volunteers. “Everyone likes smoothies,” said Jacy. “And the fruit trees and berries are easy to harvest, easy to freeze, easy to process. Students can enjoy a berry smoothie in the middle of winter and remember that they picked the berries early that year in the spring.”
Jacy and Ben have a future-oriented plan for the district’s Farm to School program. In addition to the strategic steps being made in the garden, the two are working with local community members to expand current programs (like school salad bars using locally-grown veggies [left] and cafeteria composting stations) and to plan future projects, like fruit tree pruning workshops and student internships to help with social marketing of the Farm to School idea. All of these initiatives have the shared goal of fostering a sense of connection and understanding between students and their foodshed.
Jacy and Emma are an inspiring team. They’re both involved in other community volunteer projects, and they embody the true spirit of small-town citizenship. And though there’s a difference in generation, their vision is the same: to see that the town of Cambridge and its residents are cared for by each other and connected to the land and the town’s heritage. Luckily, with the support of the school district and all of the other active organizations in the community, I’d say their vision has a strong chance of becoming a reality.
At the end of our conversation, I make a remark about the power of local initiative in rural places. Emma nods in agreement. “Everyone is more tight knit in a sense, and there are so many opportunities here.” Now that’s what we like to call the Rural Advantage.
This district serves as a leading example for this hub site, and we will continue to share stories of their good work and commitment to fostering engagement between school and community through local agriculture and sustainability initiatives. We haven't even scratched the surface of all the great things happening in this small town's schools.
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