Kevin Hesser may not be as famous as say, Willie Nelson, but in the farm to school world, he is definitely a rock star. For almost two decades, he and his wife Autumn have been infusing hands-on gardening experiences into the curriculum and culture of the Calaveras Unified School District in San Andreas, California.
Kevin and Autumn met as kayaking guides in Alaska, coaxing timid urbanites into the water. The work sparked their desire to teach, and after moving back to the lower forty-eight, they married and pursued their teaching degrees together.
“One of the advantages of being a teacher,” says Kevin, “is the ability to gear the curriculum toward your passions.” Both Autumn and Kevin introduced lessons about food to their elementary school students slowly. Kevin started with a small garden of just three half-wine barrels outside his classroom. It didn’t take long for students’ enthusiasm in the classroom to bring the administration on board with a fuller farm to school program. Soon enough “engaging kids with their food became a backbone of our work as elementary teachers,” Kevin remembers.
With 30% of Calaveras County in agricultural land, Kevin used their location to his advantage and brought students to farms for field trips, introducing firsthand experiences with farming and food production. Students, he realized, need hands-on lessons to complement the curriculum.
“There is power in that hands-on approach. A garden provides the inspiration and space that we need to learn. Kids are intuitive to that.”
In 2010, the Hessers joined a colleague to cofound Gardens to Grow In, a non-profit that promotes healthy and sustainable lifestyles in schools and communities by teaching children and families how to grow and prepare healthy food through school and community garden based programs.
A cultural shift took root in the community. Students dug deeper in the garden and were more engaged in the classroom. And it wasn’t only students; parents were also more engaged. In a low-income district, Kevin struggled to get parents into the classroom to volunteer. But the garden? Parents whom he had never met eagerly joined him there. Adventurous kids urged their hesitant parents to try new veggies. Parents would tell Kevin, “My kid says we’ve got to buy kohlrabi because we grew it in school.” Talk about purchasing power!
Kevin also found that there were always new ways to experiment. When he moved to the middle school and high school, Kevin got permission to create a cooking class designed around the garden. “There is power in that hands-on approach. A garden provides the inspiration and space that we need to learn. Kids are intuitive to that,” says Kevin.
Today, each of the nine schools in Calaveras Unified School District has an ecology lab and Kevin is a Regional Lead for the California Farm to School Network. Kevin recalls that when he started teaching about food, he had to get creative; there weren’t any programs to borrow from. Now sharing garden-based educational resources is much easier for teachers. With so many farm to school communities and resources out there, Kevin believes that anyone can be a champion for Farm to School.