The Sustainable Living Center and Walla Walla Valley Farm to School program have merged together and with a USDA grant will grow farm-to-school activities in the area.

The Department of Agriculture awarded the Sustainable Living Center with $99,500 in federal funds, which also includes $50,000 in matching funds. The allocation is part of record funding from the USDA for Farm to School grants. The SLC is one of 126 project recipients in 42 states to receive funding. It is the only one in Washington chosen for funding, the organization announced.

The timing of the award comes just as the center and Walla Walla Valley Farm to School have completed a long-desired merger.

As of Aug. 16, the Farm to School program operates under the SLC umbrella. Beth Thiel will continue as program manager for the Farm to School program under the new structure. Betsy Russel, who served as immediate past board president for the program, has joined the Sustainable Living Center team as a member of the board of directors.

The merger had been in the works since late 2017, when discussions around the idea first began. Since then, the organizations have worked together to realize the goal. Funding proposals submitted last year and this year have resulted in an Impact Grant from the Sherwood Trust this year for strategic planning and the USDA proposal, the announcement said.

The merging of the two organizations make sense, operators say, because of the direct ties both have to sustainable practices, resource conservation and education.

The Farm to School program received nonprofit status in 2015, but its roots date back to 2007.

That’s when a group of volunteers built a garden at Sharpstein Elementary and began working with teachers on how to engage students with gardening.

Since then, gardens have been planted at other area schools, and the count includes five elementary and two middle schools.

The program has sparked classroom lessons, garden clubs, farm field farm field trips, fresh food tastings at cafeterias, recipe development, cooking classes and more.

According to the website, primary work now focuses on building sustainable school garden programs that maximize school garden use, provide after-school gardening/cooking classes for middle school students, and elementary school farm field trips.

Grant objectives with the USDA funds include additional support for schools previously engaged in Farm to School activities, getting more schools involved, providing professional development opportunities for teachers, encouraging or enhancing partnerships between producers and school nutrition services programs, building continued support for the program and strengthening connections to local food and farmers.

The professional development component includes a partnership with Whitman College’s Science Outreach Program, which hosts a Summer Institute for Teachers in 2020. The focus will be on gardens in support of Next Generation Science Standards and school curricula.