DE SOTO — Tanner Johnson plays quarterback, but he struggled Tuesday with being a receiver. To be fair, the 16-year-old De Soto High School student wasn’t catching footballs.
A watermelon flew through the air and landed in his outstretched arms. Johnson bent under the impact.
“Geez,” he said.
Johnson turned and passed the fruit to one of his teammates.
“It’s a little different.”
The watermelon joined a line of green orbs, bouncing from one pair of hands to another, eventually reaching a pile on the bed of a pickup truck. About 20 De Soto football players formed the delivery line, spread across a leafy plot.
Mixed in with hundreds of watermelons growing on this rolling farm are squash, broccoli, pumpkins, cucumbers, cabbage, beans and 20-plus varieties of tomatoes.
Most will soon appear in De Soto public school kitchens and cafeterias.
“You open?” said Cole Johnson, a 17-year-old De Soto senior.
The football player hurled a watermelon at the line.
Johnson helped plant the watermelon as a member of FFA. Hunched over fully ripe plants, he finally saw the fruits of his labor.
“It’s nice to see I accomplished something,” Johnson said.
The farm belongs to Kirk Holliday, an 18-year veteran of the De Soto school board.
The garden is a team affair.
Kitchen staff works with Holliday to ensure the garden can adequately fill the school lunch menu. Students help plant and care for the crops. A couple of local farmers installed a watering system to sustain the fruits and veggies through the hot, dry summer.
The garden is part of the De Soto’s farm-to-school program, mirroring similar efforts by other western Wisconsin schools to make locally grown foods more available to students.
Like La Crosse and other area school districts, De Soto officials work with the county and local farmers to find and supply local produce to school cooks. Educators use the opportunity to teach nutrition and farming, trying to foster healthy and conscious eating habits.
“The foods are available,” said Jim Kuchta, superintendent of the De Soto district. “It’s just a matter of getting into the hands or mouths of students.”
Students are more likely to eat and enjoy fruits and vegetables after seeing them come from a nearby farm — or, maybe, finding out they were picked by the high school football team, Holliday said.
“It’s something that just makes really good sense,” Holliday said.
A day in the field also offers its own lesson for the players, said Phillip Ditto, an assistant football coach.
“It’s always good to do something for somebody else,” Ditto said. “We’ve got a whole team that can do it.”