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You’ve heard of “farm to fork,” right? Think of this season’s garden as a “seed-to-snack” project.
Students at George Watts Montessori started planting seeds last week, and they’ll keep going until school gets out. By April, students should be able to start picking from the school’s edible garden to make their own classroom snacks. Imagine walking outside to pluck a head of lettuce — or cut off a flowering broccoli or pull up fresh carrots — then going back to class to make your own delicious recipe for snack.
Last year, some classrooms made lettuce-based salads. Others made salads from freshly picked broccoli, or simply pulled a few carrots to supplement a fruit snack. What creative concoctions will they come up with this year??
Here’s what we’re planting this season, and when:
Starting a school garden is not unlike buying a soup spoon.
You can’t fully enjoy a new soup spoon until you also buy the soup bowl and the soup to fill it. And students can’t fully enjoy a school garden until they harvest its vegetables and fruits — then take the next step of cooking and eating them.
Sure, classrooms can learn plenty in a garden, even without harvesting from it. There’s no shortage of literacy, science and math lessons to do in a garden, and in our school, teachers have already created 30 lessons’ worth of connections with N.C. Standard Course of Study.
But what students learn from an edible garden can and should go beyond lessons about the parts of a plant or decomposition. Students should be able to feel the thrill of pulling a root vegetable from the ground, tasting a tomato right from the vine, and fully understanding where food comes from.
At George Watts Montessori, we’re investing in the soup bowl, as it were.
I’ve asked a class of industrial-design students at North Carolina State University to design and build a mobile cooking station for holding cooking classes indoors or outdoors. With a fully loaded cooking station, our school nutritionist, Becca Wright, can do hands-on cooking and tasting classes with pre-K through fifth graders.
And that’s yet another way we’ll bring fruits and vegetables from the garden to students.
Becca works with our school through the DINE for LIFE program, which is offered by the Durham County Health Department. Right now, she serves three Title I schools in Durham, including ours.
Her sessions with students are way more engaging than you might imagine (if you’re envisioning the food-pyramid lessons you probably had in school). But still, there’s a lot of talk about food and nutrition, and not much doing.
Becca says that the students are ready to take the next step, which is to graduate from talking about food to cooking it — picking up valuable kitchen skills and nutrition knowledge as they chop and mix.
That’s where our industrial-design students — Daniel Lecky, Brian Besterman and Zach Hodgins — enter the picture.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited their class to talk to the students about the school-gardening project and our current challenge — getting more of our garden’s produce into students’ stomachs! We fund the project through a recent BCBSNC Foundation grant. These three bright students were excited enough by the challenge to take it on — and I’m so pleased they’re collaborating with us.
Their mission is to make it easy for Becca to whisk into a classroom or into the garden with a cart that holds everything she needs to cook with kids — including a cooking surface. The station needs to be nimble, kid-friendly, expandable, sign-bearing and safe.
Yesterday the NCSU students, along with their professor Tim Buie, came to the school to tour the school and garden, and to observe Becca give a fruits-and-vegetables lesson to one of the Lower El (1st, 2nd and 3rd grade) classrooms. They took a lot of notes and asked a lot of great questions.
It’ll be a learning experience for all of us. But we hope to have a prototype working within a month or two. Just in time for the garden’s spring crop!
I just created a presentation about the evolution of our school garden at George Watts Montessori. (I can’t wait to tell you why I was doing that, but that will have to wait for another post.)
To show what we’ve accomplished, I delved into the 5 biggest ways the garden has contributed to the students’ health and academics:
1. Kids are tasting more vegetables and fruits — and learning how to cook them. Tasting what’s growing in the garden is so essential, but it’s also a challenge to incorporate into the school day.
At schools like Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., they have kitchen and garden staff who work together in figuring out what’s ready to harvest and cook with children — and then do it during set-aside blocks of time. If you’re not lucky enough to have that arrangement, you have to fit in tastings somehow.
At our school, the tastings have happened as a school-wide “celebration” — like Harvest Feast or Green Smoothie Day — and also as an individual classroom activity. This year, for example, classrooms gathered lettuce to make salads for a mid-afternoon snack and harvested broccoli for a recipe a teacher brought in. Other classrooms nibble from the plants as they pass through the garden on their way to recess.
This spring, we’ll be trying something new. More about that in a future post…
2. Kids move more. Outside in the garden, kids can stretch, soak up some sunshine vitamins, and have a sensorial experience, thanks to all the smells and textures in the garden.
But the biggest boon to students’ health? The .25-mile walking path that we installed as part of the garden expansion.
Many classes run the track before starting recess. It’s one way for teachers — and not just the P.E. coach — to help kids reach the daily recommended levels of physical activity, 60 minutes. A growing body of research shows the connection between physical activity and academic performance (not to mention the health benefits of exercise).
So anytime a teacher encourages a run around the track, she’s helping kids get smarter.
3. It’s a learning lab. I’ve told you before about the garden-based curriculum we’re using at George Watts Montessori. But teachers don’t always need customized lessons to encourage learning outside. Journaling, measuring, making real-world observations, conducting experiments, gathering specimens — it’s all possible in a garden.
Students can witness what happens when they don’t water young seeds enough, or how slowly their compost heap decomposes. It’s like this Chinese proverb puts it: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”
4. It brings food equity to our community. We have enough space in our garden now that we produce more than students can taste during the school day. So we’ve been able to think about how to share food.
Some weeks (with the help of the school’s counselor) we send home fresh vegetables to school families in need. Over the summer, everything we harvested was given away to families at a weekly Garden Giveaway Day at the school. At last spring’s Great Tomato Giveaway, every family who wanted one got a free potted tomato plant, along with a list of ways to cook and eat a tomato.
And recently, over winter break, 20 or so students and their families came to the garden to harvest spinach and carrots. We took loads of it to our downtown soup kitchen, Urban Ministries, so the chef could turn it into a meal.
5. It builds community. This means a lot of different things to me. It can mean a small group of parents coming together to work on the garden beds, or the entire school community coming together to celebrate Rootfest. Or it can point to the many connections our school has made via the garden.
So far, we’ve forged partnerships with urban gardening groups like Bountiful Backyards and SEEDS. We’ve worked closely with the nutritionists from DINE for LIFE who serve public schools. We’ve helped and been helped by Duke students who want to make a difference in Durham. We’ve collaborated with other teachers and parents throughout the public school system. We’ve received grants and in-kind donations from organizations like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, NC Beautiful, Whole Foods, Burt’s Bees, Cabot Farms and our own school alumni group Friends of Watts. (And our PTA continues to provide the critical financial and volunteer support that sustains this program.)
With all those people and organizations helping to lift up our students and lift up our school, we’ve accomplished a bazillion times more than we would have alone.
This week and last, I sent home large bags of fresh-grown lettuce and spinach from the Edible Garden to school families.*
We’ve done this sort of giveaway before, and I’ll tell you why:
1. We can find good homes for vegetables that might otherwise languish uneaten in the garden.
2. Families who receive something fresh from the garden become instant fans. The garden can always use fans.
3. Fresh, nutritious foods have become luxury goods that many families can’t afford.
Let’s talk about that troubling #3. I just finished reading a recent Newsweek cover story called “Divided We Eat.” The thrust of the article was that in modern America, “the richest Americans can afford to buy berries out of season out of season at Whole Foods, while the food insecure often eat what they can: highly caloric, mass-produced foods like pizza and packaged cakes that fill them up quickly.”
I don’t want to go all preachy on you, but it troubles me that people are eating in two different Americas. About 13% of N.C. households are food insecure. Roughly 60% of our school’s children are on Free & Reduced Lunch, an indicator of poverty.
So this is something small we can do: Share the bounty of our school’s garden with the people in our community. Bridge the “Dinner Divide” with a gift of salad or spinach.
And keep working as a community on a more sustainable solution.
* I don’t know the identities of the families receive the giveaway veggies. I package up the goods; our school’s administration makes the deliveries.
I have a confession. Before I tell you my secret, though, recall with me for a moment all the work we’ve done around salads at the George Watts edible garden over the past couple of years.
First, we planted a Salad Garden. We held “Salad Days” in the garden, where kids plucked fresh lettuce leaves, made dressings and nibbled their creations. Then we did the same thing in classrooms, turning salads into an afternoon snack. We grew radish, carrot and tomato plants, brimming with the perfect salad toppers.
I’ve been pushing salads for so long that I’m worried teachers are annoyed with me. But I keep doing it anyway, because salads are easy. You don’t need ovens or pots to prepare a salad.
That’s why what I’m about to tell you is slightly embarrassing for me: My own daughters hate salad. Here’s a picture of my 5-year-old daughter tasting lettuce that her classroom harvested…
I’m telling you this for two reasons:
1. I want to make it clear that I’m just an ordinary parent trying to help my kids eat better. I don’t have all the answers. If I had all the answers, my daughter wouldn’t be wincing in this photo.
2. Though I don’t have all the answers, I deeply believe that one solution is installing “kitchen gardens” and cooking classes at every public school. Every time I volunteer with a classroom or in the garden, I witness this truth: Kids are way more likely to taste and enjoy vegetables when they grow and prepare the food themselves.
Doing it at school means you benefit from the tipping point of vegetable tasting: Once a leader-kid dares to try something, others fall in line. That’s not such a good thing when you’re talking about cigarettes, but when it comes to tasting a radish, I’m a fan of peer pressure.
Granted, not every kid likes the salad, broccoli or whatever it is a classroom is harvesting and tasting. But plenty of kids do, and some of them live with the sort of food insecurity that makes it impossible for them to eat fresh veggies at home. And I’ve seen plenty of “a-ha” moments, as kids realize — lo and behold — they actually do like a vegetable that they didn’t like when it was served on a cafeteria tray or poured out of a can. In fact, they like it better than they normally would, because a vegetable tastes better when you pull it out of the ground and eat it within minutes. If you’ve done this before, you know what I’m talking about.
For some time now, it has troubled me that this deeply held “truth” of mine didn’t apply to my own children. Until now. Last night, when my family was eating out, something changed.
My 8-year-old daughter ordered the salad bar!
If she ever wins the Nobel Prize, she’ll see a beaming smile on my face that’s only a hair bigger than the one I wore last night.
She tried to be nonchalant about her big move, but because I’ve been more or less obsessed with salad-eating for nearly two years now, I ruined the moment by practically lurching across the table and asking, “What made you want to order the salad?”
“Because we made them in class,” she said. “When we were picking the lettuce, I was kind of worried that I wouldn’t like it. But then when we ate the salad, I realized that I actually do like it.”
I hope you caught that: My own daughter, who has been oblivious to the salad revolution I’ve launched at home and at school, is now willing to eat lettuce, because she and her classmates harvested and made a salad themselves.
As it turns out, she only ate some of the restaurant salad, even though she tried building it a couple of different ways. I asked her what was wrong — thinking maybe she didn’t like the dressing.
She said, “It just doesn’t taste as good as the lettuce from our garden at school.”
On a semi-related note, carrots in the garden are ready for harvest. Students really love discovering what’s growing under all that soil.
This week I have a guest post by Lower Elementary teacher Lauren Vejvoda, who talks about one of the true gifts of an Edible Garden — food that kids can pick and eat:
Some of my students have been checking the lettuce in the Edible Garden daily to measure its progress. They’ve been really excited to see something growing that they know is edible.
When it came time to pick lettuce, we talked about how to harvest the lettuce leaves. The kids commented that the outer leaves were kind of dirty, while the leaves in the center were very small. So they agreed we should harvest the middle leaves.
The students loved popping cherry tomatoes into their mouths, as we picked them in the garden. Even kids who hadn’t eaten tomatoes before gave them a try — though a few expressions changed to “I’m-not-so-sure-about-this” once they bit down.
Most of my class was very excited to eat the lettuce for a snack, and they were super-thrilled to try different dressings they’d brought in.
Not everyone was a fan, of course. One student mentioned, “You know I don’t eat any vegetables,” so that student didn’t share our snack. A small few students tried the lettuce but did not enjoy it.
All in all the salad snack was a success, though, because the students were honest about their feelings, because almost everyone gave the snack a try, and because all the ingredients for the snack came from the Edible Garden.
We will definitely prepare another snack from the garden and continue discovering how vegetables taste!
P.S. Ms. Vejvoda’s teaching assistant, Ms. Bullock, harvested some lettuce to take home. She found me later to rave about it. It was better tasting and stayed fresh longer than the “in bag” salad she’s bought in the past, plus, she says, she could eat every single bit of it — even the stems were tasty. Spread the word, Ms. Bullock!