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Great Kids Farm in Catonsville creates ‘virtual’ farm experience for city students

An agricultural experience usually means getting one’s hands dirty. In the case of Great Kids Farm along Route 40 in Catonsville, however, the coronavirus pandemic has necessitated replacing a shovel with a computer screen.

Operated by Baltimore City Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, the farm-to-school program offers students hands-on opportunities to “connect farm to plate, reinforce curricular concepts, strengthen environmental literacy and promote healthy habits for the whole child,” according to its website.

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However, like many activities nowadays, the program has gone virtual this past year.

Prior to the pandemic, the 33-acre Great Kids Farm hosted second-grade field trips, a Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE) for ninth-graders and workforce development opportunities for older students, such as culinary arts internships, summer employment programs and themed student summits with expert-led workshops.

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Now, the program dishes out virtual second-grade field trips, take-home gardening kits and live “FaceTime the Farmer” sessions.

Friends of Great Kids Farm, a nonprofit organization created to promote and support the farm-to-school program, partners with city schools to typically bring students to the farm.

Since the organization began a decade ago, it has raised more than $1 million for the program, securing funds for educational materials, student intern stipends, student transportation to the farm, a work truck and a fence to protect crops, according to its website.

Mandy Knab, president of the board of directors at Friends of Great Kids Farm, said the organization provides financial support to the program to help students better access the farm.

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“One of the biggest things that we help fund is transportation to help remove that barrier to access,” she said. “We don’t think [finances] should be a barrier to the educational experiences that [students] can have at the farm.”

During the 2018-2019 school year, that assistance translated into 2,220 city students visiting the farm and 40 city schools receiving free garden kits, seeds and seedlings from the farm, allowing them to replicate the farm experience in their classrooms.

Although the farm hasn’t been able to present its in-person programming during the pandemic, Knab said the organization is still funding its programs.

“Our executive director has been so phenomenal in finding grants that we can use for these different activities,” she said.

“We just continue to look for those unrestricted funding forces and establish more partnerships with community members and businesses so that they also think of [the organization] and want to jump in and help just as much as we do.”

Laura Genello, farm to school specialist for Baltimore City Public Schools, said the aim of the program is to encourage students to engage with nature in a positive way.

Throughout the pandemic, she said, the program has had to brainstorm creatively to reach students.

“We ran a virtual field trip program that we opened up to any age group and would tailor the content of those visits to what the class is studying,” she said. “We really got to explore making a lot of different connections through that program.”

According to a group of British organizations called Access To Farms, schoolchildren can benefit from farm visits in a number of ways:

• provides a stimulating and versatile outdoor classroom;

• teaches children in a direct, hands-on way about many important topics including nutrition, food production, sustainability and conservation;

• creates interest and motivation that can be carried back to classroom activities;

• has many links to the curriculum;

• allows for physical exercise;

• provides teachers with an opportunity for professional development in gaining farming and countryside knowledge, and the experience of outdoor education.

Melissa Thompson, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) coordinator at Arlington Elementary School in Baltimore City, said her students have participated in a number of virtual programs, including FaceTime the Farmer, Math with a Farmer and virtual field trips.

Although the programs are presented online, she said the students have been engaged.

“[Farmers] are going through and showing the plants and showing the animals and really just focusing on the world outside of them, and the kids really enjoy that,” Thompson said.

Students should have access to these types of programs because they give them the opportunity to learn something new, she said.

“The programs are valuable for [students] to be able to connect what they’re learning to the real world,” Thompson said. “If you don’t give them the experience to try, they’re never going to know what they like and what they don’t like.”

Azalea Greene, 5, of Baltimore, is a kindergartener at Arlington Elementary School.

While visiting the farm in the past, she said she enjoyed learning from the farmers and seeing the chicken, eggs and goats.

During the pandemic, Azalea has participated in the farm’s virtual programs.

“[Online] is OK, but I like in-person,” she said.

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