By Grant Clark
Whenever the announcement was made to head outdoors, whether it was in first grade or senior year, every student seemed to get excited. Grab the textbooks, leave the desks behind, plop down on a patch of grass and learn.
Olympia High School teacher Blue Peetz has taken that concept to a completely higher level.
Peetz oversees the Olympia High School Freedom Farmers, a program which came out of a partnership between the non-profit GRuB and the Olympia School District career and technical education department.
The vision was to take the GRuB model of inspiring community change by bringing people together through food and agriculture and accredited it at Olympia High School in an attempt to create something students could get credits for while doing farm-related work.
Using that initial plan as a foundation, Olympia High School now offers a year-round program for students to receive job training on a farm owned by the OSD.
“Not every student thrives with 35 other students sitting at a desk in a traditional learning environment,” Peetz said. “That learning style doesn’t work for everyone. We’ve had a lot of success with students who don’t succeed in the traditional setting, and out here they are doing fantastic.”
Muirhead Farm is an 18-acre property located just off Yelm Highway on Siskiyou Street and it is owned by the Olympia School District. Here students are growing a wide variety of vegetables, everything from carrots and broccoli to potatoes and cauliflower.
“The students are basically responsible for the management of the farm. What is special about this particular farm is we grow food primarily for the OSD cafeterias,” Peetz said. “You have a lot of schools around the country that are now sourcing food locally, but you don’t see a lot of school districts that basically have their own farm where students are growing food for all the schools and at the same time getting credits for it.”
The program, now in its third year, is a four-period block class where students earn credits in biology, American history and horticultural. And the end results of been impressive.
During the summer program, which students earn a $1,000 educational stipend for doing work on the organic farm, approximately 11,000 pounds of produce was grown and circulated back into the Olympia School District’s 18 schools, saving the district $8,000 in food costs while providing food for its cafeterias and the district’s free summer lunch programs, as well as SafePlace.
“We may not be able to solve everything,” Peetz said, “but at least we’re contributing something.”
That contribution is expected to continue to grow as Peetz estimates the 26-member class will bring in between 13,000 and 15,000 pounds this time around with the latter being the ultimate goal.
“There are so many people out there that don’t know where their next healthy meal is going to come from,” said Olympia High School sophomore Monroe Reinhart. “It’s proven that there’s enough food for everyone, but not everyone knows where to get it. We’re helping solve that by providing food to the community and to the elementary schools.”
Equally important, however, is what the students who are giving so much get back out of it.
“It gives me a sense of belonging that I don’t get if I just go to school,” said sophomore Amaya Escamilla, who along with 15 other students has worked both the summer and fall programs. “This place really caught me in a time when I needed that sense of belonging in my life.”
She was not along in here feelings towards the Freedom Farmers program.
Sophomore Elizabeth Baez called the group “a family.” Classmate Cassity Gullekson added, “When I first came here I was pretty anti-society. I wasn’t a butterfly, I was a caterpillar. Now, I am super open and more comfortable to step out of my boundaries and try new things.”
Future plans are being considered to utilize more of the farm’s property with the goal of using four additional acres to establish an orchard so fruit can be brought into the school district.
“It feels like what you are doing here isn’t for nothing,” Escamilla said. “At times, in school, it feels like you are preparing for something that is so far away. Here you’re working towards something that is happening now. We are growing food for people who need it now.”
The Olympia School District has already pledge $25,000 for next year’s summer program, while Olympia Federal Savings made a donation to help with funding this summer’s efforts.
“The program has become a magnet. People really are attracted to what we do here and want to be a part of it. We’ve seen such community investment from the school district to the individual donors to Oly Fed,” Peetz said. “People like what we do here and I think they like how simple it is. Its students growing food for their schools.”
With just a portion of the 18 acres currently being used, Peetz and his students see the potential of the farm’s growth as more students and outside donors become involved with the program.
“We came here at the very beginning of the program. We were at the start of it and get to see it evolve and grow,” Reinhart said. “Hopefully we can come back in 25 years and see this huge farm.”
And it’s that type of dedicated mindset that helps solve long-term problems.
“What I love about working with young people is they bring such joy to it,” Peetz said. “Sometimes when it’s just adults working on issues like this, they get too serious, and that prevents them from being creative. Young people, a lot of times, aren’t given opportunities like this. It’s just a great marriage of opportunity, producing great food for the district and students working toward graduating.”
To keep in touch with Freedom Farmers, follow the group on Facebook.