Along with his two fellow farm manager educators, Ben Townsend works with students from Memphis City Schools and Catholic jubilee schools to teach them where their food comes from. His goal: give every student in Memphis the chance to taste a homegrown organic tomato.
Townsend facilitates the planning, planting and managing of organic gardens on school grounds around the city. He also helps bring students to Harris Farms, a 30-year-old organic farm in the region, as well as the organic Greenline Demonstration Garden at Shelby Farms Park.
Students produce what they eat
“We work with students so the food from their gardens goes into school cafeterias,” Townsend explains. “Their hands are in everything that we do. They plant seeds, weed beds, harvest fruit, then eat it. We’re finding that kids are actually eating squash, tomatoes, and green beans because they’ve had their hands in it from the very beginning."
“I grew up on a farm,” continues Townsend, “so I’ve taken gardens and fresh vegetables for granted my whole life. For a kid to not know what a fresh tomato tastes like, then to see them eat it straight off the vine and ask ‘what’s this?‘ That’s what I love most about my job: working with the kids.”
USDA’s Farm to School initiative
Townsend was brought on in early 2012 as part of the national Farm to School initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and spearheaded by Tony Geraci, director of Nutrition Services for Memphis City Schools.
Geraci’s vision is to have all school meals prepared from fresh local produce, but Memphis City Schools demand far outstrips local supply. That’s where Townsend and the other farm manager educators come in.
Townsend assists students in fundraising and planning their own vegetable gardens, which in turn supply the mammoth 18-acre Central Nutrition Center with fresh produce for casseroles, salads and sides. School gardens require soil, tools and seeds, as well as volunteers and students to maintain productive beds over the summer.
The project that makes Townsend proudest is White Station High School’s, where students have embraced the concept of experiential learning from fundraising to ground-breaking.
After establishing their garden in early 2013, they intend to set up a neighborhood farmer’s market that can supply fresh produce to local residents. Once they get that off the ground, so to speak, Townsend plans to grow the program by spreading the word and his expertise around town.
For more information, contact Ben Townsend at TOWNSENDM@mcsk12.net.