Learning Grows in Triangle School Gardens
Across the Triangle, parents and educators are creating school gardens, inspired by the same movement that has spawned backyard vegetable plots, community gardens and neighborhood farmers markets.
But rather than producing food served in the cafeteria, school gardens are used as a teaching tool, organizers say. Of course there's the science, but gardens also remind children where food comes from; emphasize the importance of fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet; engender responsibility and cooperation; foster the development of other academic disciplines, such as writing and math; and give them a visceral connection to living things.
"The kids are very engaged," says Kim Brame McGimsey, who spearheaded Lacey Elementary School's efforts to create a garden in 2010. The Raleigh school now has several raised beds and, armed with a $2,000 grant from the Whole Foods Foundation, is planning an expansion. Students get to work in the garden via the school's Nature and Garden Club.
"They love getting their hands in the dirt," McGimsey says. "If it's in the garden, they want to touch it, they want to taste it — they don't miss anything. And it's not just about gardening, it's about science, it's about math, it's about writing. We even made it about marketing by making a plan to promote the naming contest for the garden." (The winning entry? The Dandy Lion Garden, a spin on the school mascot: a lion.)
Students involved in school garden projects also learn how they can help those less fortunate than themselves. Lacey Elementary partners with Plant a Row for the Hungry, a national effort that's been adopted by the Interfaith Food Shuttle of Raleigh and Logan Trading Co. to donate fresh produce to people in need. So far, Lacey Elementary's little garden has yielded 20 pounds of veggies for Plant a Row for the Hungry, McGimsey says.
At the Longview School in Raleigh, an alternative school for students with behavioral issues, students participate in gardening as part of its agricultural education program. They gain what is called "supervised agriculture experience" by working in the garden, which consists of six raised beds, a hoop house, four composting bins, two vermicomposting bins, and a working greenhouse with aquaponics and hydroponics units. They also take academically gifted classes and participate in Future Farmers of America.
"Working with plants and seeds has given them time to think about the growth cycle and how the proper TLC can produce healthy plants, thereby making them think of the tools they might need to obtain success in school and life," says Patrick Faulkner, a teacher at the school.
Brier Creek Elementary students in Raleigh have learned "patience, responsibility, respect for nature and empathy" by working in their school garden, says Chef Eric Gephart of The Chef's Academy in Morrisville. Gephart helped the students and teachers at Brier Creek Elementary plant their garden last year, and he returns frequently to talk with students about nutrition as it relates to gardening.
"Many elementary students are growing up with the notion that food comes from mega grocery stores. There is a huge disconnection between people and food these days," Gephart says. "By teaching children who look for discovery and wonderment every day something as old as stewardship of earth and body, we hope to provide them context for healthier decision-making for the rest of their lives."
Suzanne Wood is a Raleigh-based freelance writer and mother of three. Beth Shugg contributed.
Tips for starting a school garden
•Obtain buy-in from the principal. In the case of public schools, be sure to get approval from the district's facilities office before you plant.
•Run the garden idea by the PTA or other parent-driven organization.
•Raise money by asking for donations from businesses or foundations rather than expecting the school to pay for seeds and supplies.
•Publicize the garden to help raise awareness and document your progress. (See Alice Bumgarner's blog about the George Watts Montessori School garden in Durham at growinggardeners.net.)
•Volunteer to help teachers design or obtain age-appropriate lessons — preferably across the curriculum — that incorporate work in the garden.
•Ensure that all kids have supervised access to the garden. Volunteer to create dishes using the garden's produce to share with students during class time.
•Make sure the garden will be cared for during the summer. At Lacey Elementary, neighborhood families rotate watering/weeding/harvesting duties.h.
Chef Eric Gephart of The Chef's Academy in Morrisville explains to students at Brier Creek Elementary that "what grows together, goes together." Bok choy and carrots sautéed together make a healthy side dish. Likewise, watermelons, cucumbers and basil blend together for a zesty summertime snack.
Here are two recipes from Gephart and his wife, Jennie, that tastefully introduce kids to vegetables and incorporate garden-fresh produce.
Garden Kale and Local Blueberry Smoothie
½ banana (fresh or frozen)
¼ cup kale
Juice from one lemon
¼ cup blueberries (frozen or fresh)
Dash of ginger
¼ cup yogurt
¼ cup milk
Blend all ingredients together for two nutritious smoothies.
Sweet Potato Frittata
½ cup milk
2 sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 ounces ham, cubed or sliced
2 ounces broccoli
2 button mushrooms, sliced
½ cup feta cheese
2 tablespoons scallions, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
* Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, a pinch of salt and black pepper.
* Peel and shred the sweet potatoes (a cheese grater works fine). In a 10-inch sauté pan (or well-seasoned cast iron skillet), warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the sweet potatoes and toss to coat; season and stir. Cook the potatoes, stirring occasionally, until they are cooked through and have browned a bit (about 8-10 minutes).
* At this point, you can continue using the same pan to cook and finish the frittata as is, or transfer the shredded and partially cooked sweet potatoes to a 9-inch pie platter to continue.
* Place the ham, broccoli, mushrooms and feta (or any other ingredients you can pull from your garden) on top of the sweet potatoes.
* Turn the heat down to low if you're still using a cast iron or sauté pan. Pour the egg and milk mixture over the rest of the ingredients and semi-cooked sweet potato base. Put the pan/dish in the oven and bake until you can shake the pan and see that the middle is just barely set (about 12-18 minutes).
* Set the frittata aside for a few minutes before slicing it.
* Sprinkle frittata with sliced scallions.