Sweet Lessons Connect Students with Farm Products

Students with tapped maple tree

By Katie Navarra

Most kids have a sweet tooth and are more likely to try new foods with a sugary flavor. So, it’s no surprise that the nearly 800 Schenectady City School District (SCSD) students who tasted maple and the over 900 who tasted honey liked or loved it and eagerly dove into classroom lessons on how they are produced.

“Maple and honey are a great way to engage kids and bring them into the agricultural world,” said Rebekka Henriksen. As the school district’s Farm to School Project Manager, she leads teams through the New York Farm to School Institute and oversees a $100,000 USDA grant that makes the program possible. 

As Rebekka prepares for a new school year, she visits each school and asks faculty members interested in working together to sign up. It takes persistence and sometimes creative solutions to get some teachers to participate.

“Sometimes they have a concern about classroom or behavior management, so I give them the option of taking kids out in smaller groups,” she said.

When she works with classrooms to teach maple sugaring, she starts with simple tree identification in the fall. Then she leads a tree tapping lesson in winter, but instruction also incorporates a range of science concepts ranging from light refraction to viscosity and density. Students work to collect sap throughout the run and get to taste the result of all they’ve learned after Rebekka boils the sap in her backyard in two camp pans and serves it in class over pancakes or ice cream.

Similarly, she looks for opportunities to connect honey production to a variety of traditional classroom lessons, such as the role of pollination, nutrition as it is related to carbohydrates, and more. To get local honey into all 250 of the district’s elementary classrooms, Rebekka worked with a local farmer to source specifically sized honey bear bottles that were smaller than his typical one- and two-pound offerings. 

“Maple and honey are wonderful New York crops to introduce students to Farm to School,” she said. “They provide multiple opportunities for hands-on lessons that support core science curriculum through all the grade levels, and really engage students in a farm to table experience.”

In addition to the science lessons naturally connected to agriculture, Rebekka also helps ensure history and cultural connections are tied into instruction. 

“We have a large Guyanese population here in Schenectady, and they are closely connected to agriculture, maybe only one generation away from growing food,” she said. “A lot of kids, whether it’s our Puerto Rican families or Yemeni families, they have a close relationship with the land, and there are a lot of cultural lessons that can be brought into the agriculture lessons too.”

Partnering with the food services department also helps to increase the number of students exposed to the produce raised in the gardens. Understanding where the products they are already using are sourced from, and what certifications and regulations their distributor requires, are critical to making integration of farm raised products easier so local farmers meet those requirements.

“I am so grateful that our food services department agreed to get on board,” she said. “They feature Harvest of the Month taste tests in our cafeterias and find ways to incorporate those items students liked or loved into the line.”

Rebekka began working with SCSD as a parent volunteer and paraprofessional in 2015 with a small garden at the Jesse T. Zoller Elementary School. Her family grew up raising much of their own food and processing it at their urban home garden and she relied on those skills to feed her family as a low-income household receiving WIC and SNAP benefits.

“The principal asked me if I could build a garden here [at Zoller] because she knew I had an agricultural background,” she said. “I said sure because I knew that many of our kids don’t necessarily have access to outdoor space or their family doesn’t have the time or knowledge. So, they can get these skills that are so important for all humans to have, while connecting to nature and really getting engaged in what they are learning.”

That has grown into an apple orchard and 15 gardens throughout the school district and expanded to include maple sugaring and honey. One piece of advice she offers to others leading farm to school programs is to ensure there is a great enough capacity and faculty engagement to use what is harvested and maintain grow spaces. She also recommends finding a champion in your building, or within the district, who can help recruit others to embrace the program.

“Go slow and make sure it is sustainable,” she said. “Do action planning to include small discrete goals for one month, six months, and a year so that you know you’re making progress. And celebrate the victories, no matter how small!”