Teaching youngsters the value of eating good food and introducing them to the tastes of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables will, in a very few years, pay off in terms of health care and diminishing food-related illnesses. School gardens create community within the school and can do so outside of it by connecting schoolchildren with elders, the underserved, and veterans.


It was surprising to me when a school cafeteria worker and local board of health roadblocked students’ access to the food grown in their school’s own garden. The reasoning, apparently, was that the tomatoes, basil, and carrots hadn’t come from “approved sources.” Yet what constituted an approved source remained ambiguous and open to interpretation. It seems that “approved source” is one of those open-ended insider phrases that keeps people, including activists and organizers, at bay. It implies that there is some greater authority (also undisclosed and hidden away) who decides what’s acceptable and warranted and good. In the most cynical of perspectives, underlying this obfuscation are the food service contracts locking in what schools can buy and from whom. A less sinister contributing factor is that local boards of health and local school cafeteria personnel may not know yet how to go about including food grown at the school, so it’s easier to say no, with a little intimidating language thrown in.

But instead of getting roadblocked, a group of good food activists from around the country wrote some boilerplate text for you activists to hand over to your local boards of health when you start your own school garden. This language is available to schools and school districts around the country and can be adapted as needed. All together now: school garden best practices!


The following best practices were created as a collaborative effort among school garden practitioners from across the country. Thanks to Kelly Erwin, Deb Habib, Tegan Hagy, Dana Hudson, Emily Jackson, Marion Kalb, Catherine Sands, Noli Taylor, and Amy Winston. These recommendations were created with the support of the National Farm to School Network (farmtoschool.org).

School gardens serve as exciting living laboratories and are an important component of farm to school efforts. The bounty from school gardens can contribute to the school cafeteria, to students’ families, or to classroom and after-school taste-testing activities.

The following practices are intended to provide basic food safety guidelines for those involved with school gardens. They include principles from good agricultural practices and safe-handling procedures and are intended to serve as a framework that may easily be adapted to meet individual school settings and regional requirements. The safety benefits of fresh food grown on-site include the avoidance of potential contamination that accompanies long-distance travel (where products frequently change hands) and control over the supply chain direct from garden to table.

Safe-handling information should be provided to students, teachers, and others involved in growing, harvesting, and preparing food. In addition to the many benefits of fresh food, healthy activity, and learning, your school garden can be an educational tool that helps teach students about food safety procedures.


Those planning and planting the school garden should review your school’s rules and regulations. Some plants that can cause serious allergic reactions may be prohibited.

If the garden is near parking areas or other high-traffic zones, consider testing for contaminants before growing fruits and vegetables. Many states have agriculture Extension services that can help with this. If building a raised-bed garden, consider purchasing soil meant for food production from an established retail entity to ensure soil safety and traceability.

If your school has a composting program for cafeteria waste, use the resulting compost for flowers, ornamental plants, and trees rather than for garden beds where food is grown. Compost that comes from garden waste can be applied to food-growing beds if deemed appropriate by the school garden supervisor and/or compost coordinator.

Be sure to coordinate with school groundskeeping or custodial staff about your garden’s goals, protocols, and maintenance plan. If you are concerned about the presence of pesticides on or near your garden, be sure to communicate that, too. Consider using your school garden as an educational tool that can teach students about food safety procedures, and incorporate curricula that teach to these issues in your garden educational plan.

Be sure that your school garden program is aligned with any relevant school district policies, including but not limited to wellness policies, school procedures for receiving gifts and donations, working with parent and community volunteers, and liability policies.

Growing Practices

All organic matter should be fully composted in aerobic conditions and at high temperatures prior to application. Avoid raw manure, and limit composted manure to what can be purchased from a commercial outlet to ensure traceability.

When using water for irrigation, make sure it is potable and from a tested source. Check with your state Cooperative Extension for simple testing kits.

If soil used for growing is coming from school property, test for contaminants before planting. Testing kits are usually available through your state, same as water testing, above.

There are many places to purchase seeds for your school garden, so be conscious of where your seeds come from and consider source and quality. Look for those that are non–genetically modified and come from companies that have taken a “safe seed pledge.”

No synthetic pesticides or herbicides should be used, preventing toxic residue on food and avoiding human and environmental exposure to pesticides.

Materials used for garden beds should be constructed of nontoxic, nonleaching material (no pressure-treated wood or used tires).

Harvesting and Handling

Everyone involved in harvesting should wash hands thoroughly in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds prior to harvesting. Anyone with open cuts or wounds should not participate in harvest until those wounds have healed.

All harvesting tools — scissors, bowls, tubs — should be food-grade and/or food service approved and designated solely for harvest and food handling. The tools should be cleaned regularly with hot water and soap, then dried.

School garden produce delivered for use in a school cafeteria should be received and inspected by food service personnel upon delivery with the same system used to receive and inspect all other incoming products.

If storage is necessary, produce should be cooled and refrigerated promptly after harvest. Temperatures vary on type of produce being harvested; specific postharvest storage and transportation temperatures can be found at the University of California–Davis’s Postharvest Technology website (postharvest.ucdavis.edu/producefacts).

School garden produce should be handled according to the same standards that the cafeteria has in place for conventionally received produce. A person with ServSafe or comparable food safety certification should supervise students, parents, or staff who participate in any food preparation events (e.g., taste tests or special cafeteria events).


Harvest of the Month, a program that has its origins in California, with Champions for Change Network for a Healthier California, has been adapted in Oregon, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Our own Island Grown Schools compiled the art from Harvest of the Month posters as a calendar, sold to the public to benefit the program.

Fact sheets, calendar templates, program materials, and impact evaluations can be downloaded for free at the Harvest of the Month website (harvestofthemonth.cdph.ca.gov) and are not California specific. Expand and integrate your Harvest of the Month programming beyond the cafeteria. Encourage the library to showcase books about that month’s harvest, host book readings, and engage art classes to make art for the cafeteria around and about the featured crop or ingredient.


Keep track of every ounce and pound of food that is being grown in your school garden, eaten in the school, or taken off the premises for another’s kitchen. School-garden-grown carrot, pea, basil, parsley, and sweet potato facts and figures add up, proving their worth in both sustenance and education.

Assessments are important tools to have in place as early as you can. There are a lot of moving parts even when you start small, but being able to collect the information about how your program is making an impact is important not only for you but also for potential donors and any grant proposals you may write. It’s also good to know the facts and figures when you are speaking to someone in the media, whether that person is a local television show producer or a blogger.

Assessment information is also helpful if you are trying to include your program as part of the school budget. The stronger the case is for the positive impacts of a farm to school program — in the myriad of ways it affects learning, health, and well-being — the better shot you have of sharing or even passing on the fiscal responsibilities to the school or school district.

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