An industrial-scale greenhouse transforms Pacific High’s garden into a full-blown farm-to-table program

Pacific High’s garden program then-and-now. The addition of an 1,100 square foot greenhouse (funded in partnership with the Sitka Tribe and a Community Foods Program grant) has propelled the garden into a full-fledged Farm-to-Table program, supplying fresh food to the school’s kitchen, and teaching real-world skills and work ethics to students. (PHS image/Andrea Fraga)

What began as a tiny garden bed on the front lawn, has blossomed into a full-fledged Farm-to-Table program for Sitka’s alternative high school.

Pacific High in Sitka this year opened an 1,100-square foot  greenhouse on school grounds, supplemented by an extensive outdoor garden.

Principal Mandy Summer outlined the program for the Sitka School Board on Wednesday (12-6-23). She said that it’s not just about growing plants.

“So the purpose of our program is really to build career, technical, and general skills in youth that they will need to thrive in the future,” said Summer. “We have classes and activities that are 100-percent based in our farm-to-table program, and these include our spring gardening, our garden construction classes, our culinary classes that happen all year long, and our school-wide stewardship days. 

“And so the garden and culinary program also support other classes and learning opportunities by providing space for other projects in science classes, math classes, and our Alaska studies class. We have elementary school field trips from Baranof come over and do potato planting projects in our garden. We’ve had Outer Coast students come and do services. And there’s a high potential for more things like this to happen, as staffing and capacity allows, particularly by offering summer programming opportunities.”

Pacific High has a small student population, relative to the other high schools in Sitka. When the first garden plot was built in 2011, there was only one class associated with it, called “Reading and Weeding.” Now there are tie-ins to classes in all academic areas, and a grant-funded garden coordinator, Andrea Fraga, who corrals over forty volunteers in summertime to support student gardeners. And Mandy Summer says that at Pacific High, all the students are gardeners.

“When we have garden stewardship days, even our most disengaged students inside the building and inside the classroom, are very engaged outside in the garden,” she said. “The work is supporting their confidence and their pride, supporting their development of a good work ethic. And the kitchen and garden spaces also allow us to make connections with traditional foods for our majority indigenous student body.”

Pacific High’s Farm-to-Table program receives significant support from the Sitka Conservation Society, which at first served as administrator for the garden coordinator job, but has since spearheaded raising over $150,000 to construct the greenhouse. Gardening might not be at the top of the list of many conservation organizations, but the Society’s Chandler O’Connell said the program is in the SCS wheelhouse.

“We strongly believe in youth development as an essential pathway for building sustainable thriving communities,” said O’Connell. “The youth and Southeast are so amazing, and they often have so many incredible opportunities thanks to the environment and communities and cultures that hold them and surround them. And they also face really significant challenges. As you all know, people experiencing poverty, violence, trauma, struggling with mental health challenges. And so programs that focus on early intervention, prevention, and also early exposure to career pathways that are rooted and values in place can make a really big difference.”

Although the structure is complete, there is still much to do to make the new greenhouse fully functional. Principal Summer said that there are outstanding grant applications for funding to supply utilities to the building, and for other equipment to heat the garden beds in winter.

The Sitka School Board was impressed with the program. Member Steve Morse said the district owed “a big thank you” to the Conservation Society for their work to build the program.

Chandler O’Connell responded that “the students are building this program themselves right now. And that’s been going on for 12 years. And that’s really where the success lies.”

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