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FFA, ag programs break mold, ground in Cook County schools

KAY SHIPMAN FarmWeek

The 75th National FFA Week marks a first for two Chicago Heights schools this month. Make that several firsts for Rich Township High School and the Barack Obama School of Leadership and STEM.

It’s the first school year students can study agriculture and join FFA at both schools. It’s the first middle school ag program and FFA chapter in the Chicago area. And it’s the first Illinois high school ag program designed around food production and its connection to human health.

Cook County Farm Bureau Director and Rich Township alum Tim Stuenkel said the FFA and ag program fit the suburban district. Stuenkel’s farm is about a mile from the school campus, and he serves on the schools’ ag advisory committee. “A food science program is a fit that makes sense for the community and for students looking for jobs in the agricultural

economy,” Stuenkel said. Piaget Felix, Rich Township FFA adviser and agriscience teacher, said her students want to learn about the sources of their food and are “empowered by the fact that they don’t have to be a farmer in the traditional sense to grow

their own food.”
Those interests also

feed the high school’s community needs.

Jeff Bonomo, Rich Township High School curriculum and data director, described the district population as 84% to 90% low income, which would benefit from a school garden.

“We can provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the community, and we can provide those to the school cafeteria” and culinary program, Bonomo said.

This is the first time an Illinois high school designed an ag program focused on food production and the connection to health and nutrition, according to Lucas Allen, northeast field adviser with Facilitating Coordination in Agriculture Education.

Allen has worked extensively with the high school and the Barack Obama School whose middle school students go on to attend Rich Township.

Felix’s students are learning not only plant science and food production but also learning the basics of food science. “She’s teaching all the skills of getting food to the grocery store,” Allen said, “and the school culinary program will take the food and process it into prepared meals.” Bonomo added fresh ingredients from the ag program may also become dishes prepared by a future student-run food truck.

Rich Township’s ag program plans to literally break ground with a new greenhouse and additional production space when the high school converts an athletic facility into a campus for its agriculture, automotive and construction programs.

Felix said her students love the hands-on activities and are highly anticipating a yearlong school garden project. “Our (curriculum) pathway contains applications so students

see a real-world impact,” Bonomo added. “We’re not growing you (students) to be a farmer and have 800 acres, but to expose you to careers with agriculture that are worldwide.”

Bonomo values the leadership skills and character FFA membership can offer his students. “We want to provide them with the skills to be future leaders in agriculture or anywhere else,” he said.

Just like FFA members across Illinois, the new Rich Township FFA members look forward to wearing FFA jackets and sharing information about FFA with fellow students during National FFA Week, according to their adviser.

“Most of all, they are extremely grateful to have the opportunity to be able to learn about agriculture and take the leadership values from FFA in their day-to-day lives,” Felix said.

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.

State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, addresses FFA leaders and students and educators of Chicago Heights’ Rich Township High School and Barack Obama School of Leadership and STEM. Davis helped celebrate the signing of charters, starting FFA chapters at both schools.

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