As what’s being taught in today’s classrooms continues to evolve everywhere, the Encinitas Unified School District is blazing new trails with not only what kids are learning, but where. At the district’s revolutionary Farm Lab, roughly 100 students a day visit the ten-acre site as part of the curriculum in all of its nine schools. Here, they’re invited to run, play, and learn in non-traditional and integrative ways that encourage them to think about their world with new perspective.
Located on Quail Gardens Drive, the Farm Lab is home to what the district calls its DREAMS campus, which stands for Design, Research, Engineering, Art, Math, and Science. All of these elements are incorporated into the kids’ lessons at grade-appropriate levels. In addition to a one-acre “educational garden,” the site also currently holds four classrooms, with two more to be added. “Farm Lab is at the forefront of engaging, experiential, inquiry-based education that empowers real-world problem solving and promotes true critical thinking and tinkering skills that will produce a generation of thoughtful, capable stewards of our future,” says director Mim Michelove. It’s not only the kids who benefit. “We have seen that what we are doing at Farm Lab speaks to innovative educators and administrators as well as healthy school lunch advocates across the country,” she adds.
The certified organic site supplies 200-300 heads of romaine lettuce and an additional 200 pounds of another seasonal item each week for the school lunch program, producing roughly 10,000 pounds of food annually on four dedicated acres. Since the farm’s creation, “We literally turned a 100 percent packaged and processed lunch program into a 100 percent not packaged and processed [program], which is incredible,” says Michelove. “Right now we’re focused on getting as much as we can on the salad bar, but our future goal is to generate 75 percent of all the produce used in the central kitchen in nine schools.”
The parcel was donated to the district by the developer of Encinitas Ranch as part of the original development plan. Initially zoned as a site for an actual school, it sat fallow for more than two decades because once the neighborhood was established, there weren’t enough students to warrant the school. Since the Farm Lab’s 2014 launch, Michelove has overseen the site’s ongoing transformation from a build-ready dirt lot to a farm with plant-able soils that are prepared to accept rain and sustain life. Most recently, on Michelove’s recommendation, the school board approved a partnership with San Juan Capistrano-based eco-education nonprofit The Ecology Center to help the Encinitas Schools District expand programming and development of the site. The collaboration also encourages community use and engagement in the farm’s activities and mission with farm dinners, weekend workshops, and tools and resources for homeowners. “While working with the district, we’re about all access to all members of the community,” says The Ecology Center’s executive director, Evan Marks. “The goal is to take the great foundation that Mim and team have created here and try to accelerate it and create a great resource for the whole region.”
Citing renowned chef and sustainable food activist Alice Waters as one of her inspirations, Michelove says what they have most in common is “understanding that what you choose to eat can change the world.” At the Farm Lab, they’re encouraging that change, one child at a time. eusdfarmlab.com
Farm Lab is an innovative outdoor learning campus for students in the Encinitas Union School District