Tag Archives: Featured

5 ways edible gardens make kids smarter and healthier

1 Feb

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.

What can you make with spinach and strawberries (both grown in our garden)? Green smoothies!

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.

A class does a lap before recess begins.

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.

Confessions of a school gardener

23 Nov

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.

Eating healthy in the classroom

4 Nov

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.

Photos by Susie Post Rust

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!

Smells like garlic season

3 Nov

My recent garden session with fourth and fifth graders at George Watts Montessori started with a question: “When you buy garlic at the grocery store, where do you think that garlic comes from?”

Just some of last summer's garlic crop

The students had never really thought about it, so they cautiously offered answers. One student said, “It depends on what store you go to,” which is probably true.

“Three out of four of the garlic heads you see in grocery stores are likely from China. That’s our main source for garlic,” I told them. “So, is there anything wrong with that? Maybe it’s perfectly fine that most of our garlic comes from China, or maybe it’s not. What do you think?”

The answers came quickly.

“No, that’s polluting the air!”

“That’s wasting energy, if it has to come all the way from China!”

“Everything comes from China these days.” (I’m not kidding; one of the students actually said that.)

I showed them what I had in the small paper bag I was carrying — 8 heads of garlic from local garden shop Stone Bros. & Byrd that cost about $3 total.

I told them, “We can plant our own garlic right here in our garden. It’s easy to grow. And when it’s ready for picking after a few months, we can harvest and dry it, and it’s ready for using in some of our favorite meals, like pasta and pizza.

“We don’t need to have someone in China do this for us and then put it on a plane and send it all the way over here.”

So that’s what the students did. They started by smoothing out the soil in our freshly turned garden bed. Then they measured and made holes 6 inches apart. They chose the largest and most viable garlic cloves, planted them 2 inches deep — with the pointy side up — and loosely covered them with soil. We covered the bed with straw and marked it with a kid-painted “Garlic” sign.

We should have about 50 garlic heads to harvest in early summer. ($3 investment + several months = 50 garlic heads.)

Last summer, we gave away lots of garlic heads from the garden at our summer farmer’s market at the school. With any luck, we’ll have a big crop again this year.

Straw protects the garlic bed over the winter.

Giving away garlic at the school's summer market

Green smoothies and 320 adventurous eaters

8 Jun

Today we held our final food-in-the-garden event of the school year at George Watts, and what a finale it was. On the menu: grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato and basil, and green smoothies. More on that in minute.

First, I must thank Becca Wright, our school nutritionist, and the team of volunteers who worked in the garden all day, helping kids make the connection between what’s growing in our school garden and the food we were tasting. The volunteers walked the kids to the tomato and basil garden beds (and the now out-of-season strawberry bed), encouraging them to pluck and eat when the fruit is ripe. We picked a few of the Sun Gold tomatoes and popped them right into our mouths. Absolutely wonderful!

We used our garden’s fresh basil for the sandwiches, as well as sharp cheddar cheese donated by Cabot Creamery, a family-owned cooperative in Vermont — thanks, Cabot Creamery!

Now, back to the menu. The green smoothies were (unsurprisingly) the hit of the day. The kids cut up the fruit and spinach, measured ingredients and combined them in the blender. Result? Greenish-brownish smoothie.

Inevitably, one kid in each group was brave enough to be the first taster. And after one kid said, “Mmmmm!” almost everyone else fell in line. Even kindergartners gobbled it up. Parents, you would’ve been proud. You’ll find the recipe at the end of the post.

Our school nutritionist Becca Wright






A green mustache



Our sandwich chef volunteers

Kids picking garlic from the garden

How to Make a Green Smoothie

1/2 banana
12 strawberries
2 cups spinach
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon honey
ice cubes

Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth. Add ice as desired.