This past year I served as an Americorps Volunteer In Service to America (VISTA) at Community Action Coalition in the Community Gardens Division to enhance garden opportunities and accessibility for youth, seniors, and people with disabilities. As an educator with a love for children, I focused a good deal of time at the public schools supporting teachers and classrooms interested in gardening.
I arrived at Falk Elementary with a bundle of freshly-harvested vegetables and a bag of seeds. I thought to myself, today these kids are going to get outside, not only physically outdoors but also mentally, thinking about things like seed germination and plant growth, pollination, why fruit is so sweet, decomposition, as well as things that might never have crossed their minds, such as how many miles their food traveled or the difference between organic and conventional foods, or the environmental impact associated with food production. For many of these first graders it was their first time smelling a ripe tomato or touching the leafy green tops of carrots. Out in the garden, the children planted quick-growing vegetables such as lettuce and beets that grow ready for harvest in a few short weeks. A hands-on activity such as school gardening provides a crucial link in building awareness as well as developing relationships with the foods we eat.
The Benefits of School Gardens
The benefits of school gardens go far beyond their usefulness as outdoor classrooms. School gardens have been shown not only to improve academic performance, but also to impact children's values and attitudes about diet, nutrition, and the environment, and to strengthen school community. In California, a mandate was passed to put a garden in every school. We all know that when students are given the opportunity to explore and make hands-on discoveries they become more interested and excited about what they are learning. They take more ownership of what they learn. It becomes tangible and meaningful. As a consequence, they retain more, and academic achievement improves.
A Lesson in Icky Creatures
Take worm composting, for example. Worms are often seen as icky creatures with little purpose and more often than not wind up smashed on pavement. By keeping a worm bin in the classroom and allowing students to feed them vegetable waste that would otherwise be put in the garbage, they learn about composting in a fun and interactive way.
At a young age, school children are more flexible in their opinions and attitudes about food. When kids see the whole cycle through from seed to harvest they can learn and appreciate all the hard work and energy spent in growing. Unlike store- bought food, garden-grown food allows children to learn how plants grow and how they taste fresh out of the ground. Studies have found improved attitudes toward fruits and vegetables where kids were involved in school garden programs. What better way to get kids to eat their veggies?
The USDA recommends five servings of fruits and vegetables a day for children. We know that nutrition plays a very important role in optimizing mental and physical capacities. Are the school lunch programs which serve over 27 million meals a day the healthiest and most nutritious choices available? Take a look at the school menu: donut holes for breakfast and corn puppies or pizza for lunch. However, thanks to the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Program and the farm-to-school project, a few Madison schools are beginning to change their ways. In its early stages, the project is working with three pilot schools; (Lincoln, Lapham, and Chavez Elementary Schools) to improve school lunches and the quality of food being served. This fall each school had a harvest festival, participated in tomato and apple tasting activities, and took field trips to local farms.
Different Learning Environments
Unlike the indoor classroom, the garden offers endless possibilities in which all kids can benefit. The garden can be especially beneficial for kids who have difficulty focusing their attention, such as those labeled ADD or kids with physical disabilities who are often isolated from their peers. By removing barriers, school gardens build community and cultivate a place where all kids can feel successful. Even though we live in one of the most fertile places on earth, most of the food served to students is chemically laden and comes in a giant truck from thousands of miles away. Let's give support to the farm-to-school project and help get more schools get on the right path to healthier lunches.
School Vegetable Gardens
Out of the 37 public schools in Madison, there are only a half dozen or so with school vegetable gardens. But what about the other schools? We need to build more momentum for school gardens. Talk to your children's teachers, principals, and school board about putting in a garden at your child's school.
Contact Community Action Coalition Garden Division Inc. for South Central WI 246-4730 x 212 or The Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Program www.reapfoodgroup.org/farmtoschool/partnerships.shtml to see what you can do.