ALTAMONT — With federal school lunch regulations limiting students to 500 calories per day during the noon hour, Altamont high school and junior high students were concerned that they were missing out on nourishment they needed to sustain them for the rest of the day.
Unit 10 Superintendent Jeff Fritchtnitch said the ultimate goal is to get away from the federal lunch program. But it's not Unit 10 staff members who are spearheading that effort.
It's the kids.
A group of students with budding green thumbs have approached Fritchtnitch about developing a garden plot south of the grade school — as well as building a new greenhouse at the high school. And, they're not wasting any time getting ready for this year's growing season.
"We've already started taking soil tests where the garden is going to be," said junior Ryan Tillman.
Eighth-grader Kevin Miller said the school district, at student behest, is applying for a $45,000 Farm-To-School grant to finance infrastructure for both the garden — which will include a "high tunnel" for indoor growing — and a greenhouse to replace the dilapidated growing structure at the high school.
Both the garden and greenhouse will enable students to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for use in school lunches. And, it will enable the school district to remove itself from the federal lunch program.
Seventh-grader Craig Logan said — with advice from the Effingham County Master Gardener program — the first-year garden will yield cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, peppers and zucchini, to name a few.
But the project is also about giving back, said Logan.
"Kevin (Miller) and I love the idea of giving back to our community," Logan said.
Miller and Logan met with Fritchtnitch in February to get the ball rolling. The concept was presented to the Unit 10 Board of Education on Feb. 9, a presentation that went well, Fritchtnitch said.
"The board was excited and encouraged," Fritchtnitch said. Then the process turned to securing the grant itself. As with many federal grants, the recipient must provide some sort of match. In Altamont's case, the match is $10,000 in either monetary or in-kind donations. To meet that need, the students created a list of local businesses that have agreed to help.
Syngenta Seeds, for example, is providing seed for one and a half acres of seed corn. Other partners include Effingham Equity, S&W Supermarket, Nuxoll Foods, Altamont Garden Club, Unit 10 schools, Farm Credit Services, First Mid-Illinois Bank, National Bank of Altamont, Peoples Bank & Trust and Bladez Salon.
Still other partners include Kull Furniture Galleries, Rural King, the Carriage House Event Center, as well as local farmers Dale Laue and Chris Guse, who have agreed to donate the proceeds from end rows in their fields. Additional sponsors include the Effingham County Farm Bureau and University of Illinois Extension.
Fritchtnitch hopes students other than the organizers jump on the garden bandwagon.
"They are encouraging everyone to become involved in this," he said.
Fritchtnitch said organizers, who also include eighth-grader Grant Schmidt and junior Allison Schmidt, deserve high praise.
"I'm very proud of each of these kids for their willingness to take over," he said. "This is transformational for the school system.
"It's cutting edge — jumping off the cliff," he added. "These students are going to change their own lives and change the lives of others."
Fritchtnitch added that the project also signals a cultural change toward more self-reliance.
"It also changes a culture where instead of looking for assistance, these kids want to eliminate it."
Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, at email@example.com, or on Twitter @EDNBGrimes.