When Longview ISD students are served a meal from a school cafeteria, they can know exactly where some of the food came from — the district’s backyard.

About 5 acres of land behind the Education Support Center on East Young Street is a garden with fruits and vegetables used to feed students.

Director of Child Nutrition Phyllis Dozier said the garden was started as a community project about four years ago with a section used by the district. The garden now is completely owned by LISD and is twice the size as when it started.

The past three years have not provided much produce, Dozier said, as most of the garden needed the soil prepared. That’s not true this year, however.

District Master Gardener Martha Hood said the garden now has lots of tomatoes, tomatillos, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, turnip greens, mustard greens, carrots, garlic, blueberries, blackberries, pears and squash.

All of that food goes right back to the students.

In 2017, Hood came to district campuses to teach second-graders about growing their own food. That led to her job in the district.

“It’s like a gift from God to have this job because I love it,” Hood said. “My goal is I want all kids to know how to grow stuff and how to eat healthy.”

Hood spends about 24 to 30 hours a week working in the garden. She said there also are FFA students who help.

In past years, the harvest only has lasted until about October, Dozier said. But there will be enough for much longer this year.

“Our plan next year is more to be from the garden straight to the plate,” she said. The fresh ingredients also are being used in the district’s summer feeding program.

The Texas Department of Agriculture provides funds for the garden as long as it goes back to students, Dozier said. The district still has costs related to it, however.

“Our focus is not on money; our focus is on good food for the kids,” she said. “We cook what we grow.”

For many children in the district who are part of low-income families, the fresh food served in the cafeteria might be the only nutritious meals they get, Dozier said.

The Texas Department of Agriculture wants students to learn about healthy eating, she said. Providing fresh food over canned food does that. One example is the district is able to use tomatoes for spaghetti sauce instead of from a can.

“Fresh food tastes better than a frozen or processed something,” she said. “If we start at the Montessori level, which we do, then by the time they’re older, that habit is already established with them and they’re eating fresh.”

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Kristen is the News-Journal's education reporter. A Longview native, she got a journalism degree and a graduate certificate at Texas Tech University. She covers a variety of issues, including school finance, board meetings and happenings at local schools.