In 2006, Beth Thiel recognized a problem.

Every day, her son, a kindergartner, shuffled off to Sharpstein Elementary to learn about mathematics and literacy, physical activity and how to behave in school. And, every day, he and other students checked their good habits at the door to the cafeteria.

“At the time my son went to kindergarten, chicken nuggets were on the menu every single day. I couldn’t believe that we, as adults, were telling our kids it’s OK to eat that way every day,” Thiel said.

Thiel and other parents began meeting with the school’s nutrition services director to talk options for improving the food their children consumed. The most economical answer was to build a school garden and increase student awareness of growing — and eating — fresh foods.

While other parents donated time designing and constructing a school garden, Thiel focused on raising the $4,000 necessary to finish the project. The garden opened in 2007 and allowed students to plant, harvest, prepare, serve and taste fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables.

Suddenly, fresh food was fun, interactive and interesting. Chicken nuggets had competition — and then lost some of their appeal.

The garden was a victory for Sharpstein, but it was also an awakening for Thiel.

In between working for the Blue Mountain Land Trust and raising her two children, Thiel discovered a passion for school gardens. The passion came as a surprise, but, looking back, the seeds had been planted throughout her life.

Thiel grew up in southeast Idaho, the daughter of a farmer who was the son of a farmer. Her uncles were farmers, and Thiel continued in the agricultural vein by studying botany and biochemistry.

Before having children, she and her husband joined the Peace Corps, serving in Papua, New Guinea, and traveling across Asia. After coming face to face with hunger, the separation between Americans and their food struck a chord with her.

“The disconnect you see between people and real food is disconcerting to me,” she said. “I’ve lived in places where people didn’t have a lot of food. I wish there was less food-waste here, and a higher value for food in general.”

That wish translated into her work with the garden at Sharpstein. After it opened in 2007,she continued to host “seed sales” at the school to raise money for ongoing maintenance and expansion of the program.

In May 2012, that funding paid off. Through joint efforts from the Sharpstein PTA garden committee and the First Fruits Fund, a component of Blue Mountain Community Foundation, Thiel became the first coordinator of Walla Walla’s Farm to School program, a districtwide initiative to use locally grown foods coupled with educational activities to support farming and nutrition.

“When we first started growing gardens and just taking kids out and exposing them to the garden and growing and cooking, it was happening all over the country,” Thiel said. “We were doing a lot with a little bit of money.”

The project — and Thiel’s workload — continued to grow, and in November 2012, the district received a $96,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Through that grant, the district is working on five major goals: establishing a sustainable food purchasing method buying regionally grown foods; providing new recipes and training for nutritional services staff; promoting connections between classrooms and local farms; expanding the school garden program; and organizing cooking classes to inspire and inform students, parents and community members.

“None of it can happen without all of it working together,” Thiel said. “If I say the most important thing is training local staff in healthy recipes and learning how to scratch-cook, well, if we didn’t have the education piece, the kids might not eat it. It’s all important.”

In addition to managing the grant and the Farm to School program, Thiel must look for ongoing funding for the program — the USDA grant ends this November — and creating a sustainable program.

Looking to the future, Thiel dreams of establishing a market for local and regional food products that would bring together local schools, hospitals, prisons and other organizations to boost purchasing power and motivate young people to become farmers.

“The average age of a farmer is the late 50s, early 60s. They’re looking to retire, but there are no young farmers coming on because of the economy,” Thiel said. “I’d like to think we can give a couple new farms the confidence to try it because we have a local market to purchase large amounts of local food.”

For now, Thiel continues to coordinate the Walla Walla School District’s Farm to School program and search out funding to keep it going.

“It’s a little overwhelming, sometimes. I had no ambition of doing something like this, but it’s something I really enjoy,” she said. “I’m just a really average person. Anybody can do this. If you get involved and keep plugging away, you can make it happen.”

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