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Concordia Charter School Cultivates a Love for Healthy Eating

In the heart of northwest Mesa, Arizona, nestled within the C.A.N.D.O. neighborhood, you’ll find Concordia Charter School. Founded in 2004, this small, kindergarten through 6th grade public charter school is more than just a place of learning. It’s a place where the staff and students have developed a passion for eating healthy.

two men walking through a garden with a welcome sign in the foreground
Concordia's farm to school coordinator James Lang leads Acting Under Secretary of USDA FNCS Kumar Chandran on a tour of the school's garden.

Concordia shines bright as a beacon of hope for families in surrounding economically challenged communities. Ninety-five percent of the 91 students currently enrolled qualify for free or reduced lunch. For this reason, the school offers breakfast and lunch at no cost to all students through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Provision 2 school meal programs, which simplifies meal counting and claiming procedures for schools.

The school operates on the campus of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, where the children fill their classrooms with curiosity and laughter. Concordia embraces its mission to provide a high-quality education to every child and relies on the highly acclaimed Core Knowledge curriculum to achieve high academic performance. However, beyond the traditional classroom walls, something magical is growing – literally.

Every Monday and Tuesday afternoon between 1:50–3:20 p.m., the school buzzes with excitement when the students close their books and step into the open-air courtyard. This is where the magic happens, and they learn from the earth itself. Concordia’s Farm to School Coordinator James Lang teaches the students lessons on planting and cooking.

In January, the students planted cabbage. As the leaves unfurled, they learned how to make Napa stir fry using their cabbage. Another lesson included planting watermelon radishes used to make pico de gallo that was featured on their school lunch menu.

a young girl in a school uniform holding a flapping chicken in a coop behind a wire fence
As part of the garden program, students tend to their chickens, like the student pictured here.

“I believe the garden is the jewel of our school,” said Principal Amy Hardgrove. “Students enjoy the rich experience of seeing plants grow from seed to harvest, while they themselves are also growing. The garden gives our students a calm space to learn and get back into nature, and it’s a point of pride and joy for our entire school community.”

In addition to growing vegetables in their raised garden beds, the children experience the joy of responsible animal care through their onsite chicken coop and watch as nature transforms waste into rich soil through composting and vermicomposting (composting with worms).

“Our garden program was 10 years in the making and has finally come to fruition,” said Concordia’s Founder and Director Margaret Roush-Meier. “Measures of success for the program are engrained in the school’s culture, aligned to state standards, and articulated throughout the curriculum.”

According to Ms. Roush-Meier, continuous leadership development and a commitment to the future are integral to the sustainability of their garden program. But Concordia isn’t just about gardening. It’s about nourishing both mind and body. They participate in USDA’s Patrick Leahy Farm to School Program which helps schools incorporate local farm-fresh foods into the meals they serve. According to Concordia’s Food and Nutrition Manager Iris Tirado, the school sources about 40-45 percent of its produce from local farmers.

“I love creating meals with more local products and fresh produce,” said Ms. Tirado. “Moving from prepackaged items to scratch cooking has been a great journey for me. I’m very passionate about serving the students food they love and making a difference in their young lives.”

students sitting at a school cafeteria table eating pancakes with fruit compote on them
Young students enjoying breakfast made entirely from locally sourced pancake mix from Oatman Farms and breakfast sausage from M.A.D. Burgers and Sausage.

The cafeteria hums with activity during breakfast and lunch where Ms. Tirado plays a crucial role in providing nutritious meals to the children. She handles menu planning and meal preparation, and to foster interaction, she actively seeks feedback from students about their food preferences. On one occasion, Ms. Tirado transitioned students from using syrup on pancakes and waffles, to homemade fruit compote. Initially, she offered a choice between syrup and compote, gradually reducing the syrup portion for the healthier option. She explained to the students that syrup would eventually be phased out, emphasizing the importance of involving them in decision-making and teaching them about eating healthy.

Concordia’s focus on nutrition doesn’t end there. Thanks to a $96,203 Healthy Meals Incentives (HMI) grant awarded to Concordia by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK), the school has improved the nutritional quality of its meals and modernized its operations with additional equipment, supplies, staffing, training, nutritional software, and student engagement.

“With the HMI grant, we are able to make a difference with the food we’re serving our students, including the salad bar we introduced this year with crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes, crunchy carrots and other items that give way to a rainbow on their plates,” said Ms. Tirado. “We also introduced local grains, and next year, we’re evaluating our protein sources. Creating cultural and relevant recipes in our menu is an extraordinary experience for our students.”

Ms. Tirado added, “One day, I ran into one of our families while in the community and the student ran to me, hugged me, and told her mom, ‘This is Chef Iris. She makes the best food at school.’ This was a great feeling because I know we’re making a difference in that child’s life.”

Concordia’s hallways echo with laughter as its students find common ground in the classroom, in their garden, and at the lunch table. Economic challenges might knock at their doors, but at Concordia Charter School, they are nourished – mind, body, and soul.

Page updated: May 30, 2024